Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review: Cafe Society

Image courtesy of Lionsgate. 
Having made 47 features, 81-year-old Woody Allen's filmography can, at this point, be divided into several subsections - there are the great ones (such as "Annie Hall" and "Radio Days"), the very good ("The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "Midnight in Paris"), the good enough (last year's "Irrational Man" and "Scoop") and the middling (granted, there are only a few flops in the director's career, but a couple of them include "Magic in the Moonlight" and "Shadows and Fog").

Allen's latest, "Cafe Society," is - much like many of his films from the 21st century (not including, of course, the terrific "Match Point" and the very good "Midnight in Paris," "Blue Jasmine" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), a well made, enjoyable and mostly lightweight affair. The picture breezes on by and is a good time spent with a bevy of likable actors. Only in its finale does it take on a slightly heavier tone and more melancholic subject matter.

At the film's beginning, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg doing the Woody Allen stand-in thing) moves out to Los Angeles from the Bronx and attempts to get his Hollywood big shot uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell, to give him a job. The time is the late 1930s, which means that a lot of stars of yesteryear get name dropped and there's a fair amount of jazz on the soundtrack. And, thankfully, the picture gets its least successful sequence out of the way early on when Bobby tries to set up an appointment with a prostitute.

Bobby quickly becomes smitten with his uncle's secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who is tasked with taking the Hollywood newcomer around the town. Naturally, Bobby begins to fall in love with Vonnie, who gently fends off his affections and tells him that she already has a boyfriend. Several plot twists that are pretty easy to see from a mile away occur and Bobby finds himself in a love triangle.

When his Hollywood dreams are dashed, Bobby returns to New York, manages a nightclub for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) and marries a socialite played by Blake Lively. While the Hollywood scenes are light and airy and feature some gorgeous cinematography, the New York scenes - Allen's familiar terrain - are even better and funnier. Stoll's crooked ways provide a few laughs and so do Bobby's bickering parents, but the picture's best joke involves Bobby's sister, her husband and a pain in the ass neighbor.

Near its end, "Cafe Society" takes a more serious tone and picks up the theme of regret and how the past can haunt the present and future. For a movie this breezy, it's a bit jarring when it suddenly becomes melancholic - and yet it works.

Eisenberg does a better job than most at being the Woody stand-in, while Carell, Lively, Stewart, Parker Posey and the various character actors portraying Bobby's family all provide solid supporting work. As I said before, this isn't one of Allen's best, but it's enjoyable and slightly weightier than you might originally think.

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