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Cannes 2016: Café Society Review

By  · Published on May 12th, 2016

Light and familiar, yet always welcome.

With nearly fifty films to his name, it seems hard for Woody Allen to be original these days. Successful or not, his past fifteen films have been retreads of other works (Blue Jasmine) or worse, retreads of his own films (Whatever Works). Allen’s forty-seventh film, Café Society belongs to the latter classification.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Allen stand-in Bobby Dorfman, a Jewish New Yorker thrust into the scandal of Golden Age Hollywood when he travels to work for his uncle, big-shot agent Phil (Steve Carell). Along the way Bobby schmoozes with the cosmopolitan and quickly falls in love with his uncle’s assistant Veronica (Kristen Stewart). Rounding out the ensemble are Corey Stoll as Bobby’s gangster brother Ben, and Blake Lively as the second Veronica, who enters Bobby’s life just as his woes seem to have fled.

The essentials of the plot are familiar. Every Allen film appears to have the same protagonist infringing himself on an alluring female costar. What is unique here is that Eisenberg’s Bobby remains one of the least interesting characters; for the better. He often acts as the conduit to allow the other, more exotic, characters to come fourth in scene-stealing bravado. His character arouses excellent subtly in Kristen Stewart’s Vonnie. The actress invokes ’70s Mia Farrow as the film’s most dynamic character, and easily one of Stewart’s best roles to date. While Stewart is great, the film also largely belongs to the supporting actors filling in the roles of Bobby’s extended family. No one does Jewish humor like Woody Allen and with skilled performances by Sari Lennick (A Serious Man) and Jeannie Berlin, Allen’s best screenwriting talents shine through.

In tone, Café Society feels quite similar to the likes of The Purple Rose of Cairo mixed in with a bit of Radio Days. What ultimately separates Café Society from the rest of Allen’s oeuvre is its visual style. Allen enlists master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor) to frame his first digitally shot feature. The result is initially pretty jarring. From the opening frame, something just does not feel quite right. With a narration by Allen himself and Carell’s Phil name dropping as many Hollywood stars as possible, Café Society certainly sounds like a Woody Allen film; it’s just remarkable how little it looks like one. Storaro’s overly lit use of dark tones is somewhat puzzling. The film almost has a made for TV look to it – possibly heightened due to the presence of the Amazon Studios logo in the opening. However, rather than misused, Storaro’s palette highlights the artificiality of Allen’s featured landscape. These visuals contribute to Allen’s continued commentary on the misgivings of living amongst the Hollywood elite. Therefore it is no surprise that Allen’s first Hollywood-set film in decades is overtly critical.

The ultimate downfall of Café Society – or perhaps its saving grace, depending on whom you ask – is that it really is just too light. Sure, there’s good humor and compelling characters spread evenly throughout, but there just isn’t really anything to latch on to. The plot is simple, and frankly, as attractive as they are, the characters are too. That being said, I’ll take fun, light, and forgettable Woody Allen over the tedious droll that Allen seems to turn out every couple years or so.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.