Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell
As a director and writer Woody Allen is a master at witty dialogue, neurotic characterizations, and near-perfect period details. With a film released annually, Allen sometimes misses the mark at sincerity and masterpiece, even with subtle moments of enjoyment. In his newest film, Cafe Society, he returns to some of his greatest work, delivering a film with a strong script and even stronger performances.
Set in the 1930s, Cafe Society follows Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a young Bronx native who drops everything to move out west to Hollywood, with hopes of picking up a job with his powerful uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Though his uncle has a hard time remembering his name, Bobby finally lands a job as an errand boy. New to the city, Bobby is tasked by his uncle to see as much as he can his first weekend there. Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a fellow employee, takes up tour guide duty and, before long, Bobby is in love.
Eisenberg, as Bobby, fills the void of what would have definitely been an Allen role, had Cafe Society been made in the 70s. Every bit of Allen's signature biting delivery is present in almost every line Eisenberg utters. Though, it's tough to say if that's a directorial and performance decision, or just pleasant coincidence. We've come to know Eisenberg as an equally neurotic performer in his past films, like The Social Network. The busy-brain stutter plays into the wackiness of it all so well. An Allen homage or not, Eisenberg's Bobby is a refreshing anti-hero, never sure of himself, but constantly over-confident.
Stewart, who is traditionally not an electric screen performance, shows plenty of growth as an actress. Perhaps her greatest weakness all along has been her choice of projects. (Imagine if she started as an arthouse queen, instead of the Twilight saga.) She's expressive in a way that is both sincere and mysterious. Vonnie lives and breathes the beleaguered girl-next-door type, but it's when we realize with whom she's having an affair that her morals as a lady come into question.
Being the 1930s, the most fun part of the film is the behind-the-scenes look at studio heavy Hollywood. While Allen is smart to never reveal big studio stars of the time, their names are uttered by Phil Stern in a fantastically showy way. Hollywood is, after all, all about appearances. While Ginger Rogers or Paul Muni never call, Stern is quick to let everyone at his fabulous parties know he's expecting them.
Perhaps a love letter to Los Angeles and the Hollywood we all like to remember, Cafe Society serves its locations well. Glamour is all around and the characters always seem to be just as in awe as we are.
Cafe Society works well as a comedy, mostly thanks to its incredible cast. Eisenberg and Stewart carry most of the film, but supporting players do just as well. Carell plays opposite type as the filthy rich Phil Stern, always focused on work and his love life. He's nasty and enjoyably so. It's one of the first times I wasn't distractedly thinking Michael Scott had popped up in a film. Blake Lively, in an important but small role, is gorgeous and light. This should continue to serve her well as she transitions into movie star status. Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, and Anna Camp play up other, great moments throughout the story.
As most summertime arthouse films do, Cafe Society offers a refreshing filmgoing experience, full of life, laughs, and an intelligent story.
Runtime: 96 min