Cafe Society Review

One day a few years ago I was walking down Columbus Avenue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and I saw this older man exit the post office. He was wearing a lightweight jacket, a baseball cap and glasses. Immediately I wondered, "is that....?" "No, it's probably just a regular guy doing some errands around New York City," I thought. But I followed him for a few blocks anyway, just out of curiosity. Though I can't be absolutely certain, I ended up deciding that I probably walked behind Woody Allen for a little bit that day, and I could hardly be more thrilled at the idea. As an unabashed fan of his films it's quite comforting to know a new one - typically quite different from his last - will appear each and every year without fail. Eventually this won't be the case, of course, but it's nice to continue having that luxury as long as possible.

Allen's latest - his 46th as writer and director - is Cafe Society, a movie that pretty much feels like you've seen it even before you have. There's a case to be made that Cafe Society is totally unnecessary, superfluous and lazy but it won't be made here. It's worth noting, to be sure, that the film adds little to Allen's legacy and it's hardly essential viewing. Regardless, those who enjoy new movies set in and around Hollywood's Golden Age featuring a handful of movie stars have been blessed with a pair of mostly mediocre yet slightly enjoyable pictures this year, with the Coens' Hail, Caesar! and now this effort from Allen. That supreme rarity of subject matter overlap, in this instance, also won't be decried one bit.

Jesse Eisenberg acts as a first-rate Allen surrogate - as natural of one as he's probably ever had - playing the nephew of a big-time Hollywood agent (played by Steve Carell, in a role that was originally Bruce Willis'). Eisenberg's Bobby ventures to Los Angeles from the Bronx with stars in his eyes but can't even get a meeting with his Uncle Phil for several weeks. Phil's secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) does catch Bobby's eye, though the young man remains unaware that his uncle is carrying on an affair with his new crush until he's already asked her to marry him and move back to New York.

If you've seen the underrated 2009 comedy Adventureland then some familiarity might pop up here, as once again we have Eisenberg playing a newcomer who latches onto Stewart's character only to eventually realize she's carrying on an affair with the older guy he looks up to at work. Thankfully, the interlocked threads separate as Cafe Society progresses. Bobby does indeed move back to New York, where he meets another Veronica, played by Blake Lively, and goes into the nightclub business alongside his gangster brother (Corey Stoll, reuniting with Allen after his breakout as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris).  Lively gives perhaps the strongest performance in the film, in just a handful of scenes, because she seems deeply of the era and socially unflappable. It's a surprising but impressive turn.

Even more than the cast or the setting, one could argue that it's the film's cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, that is the biggest point of interest here. Storaro has lensed some of the greatest movies ever made - from The Conformist to Apocalypse Now - but he hadn't previously worked with Woody Allen. His influence shines through brightly and with a purpose. The art direction and photography, with Allen shooting on digital for the first time, are both extraordinary. Admirers of the 1930s-era time period will be in for a treat, as the plot sputtering along often requires us to look elsewhere for inspiration.

Of note is how melancholy the picture ends up being. Aside from the ending, the signs of classic Allen unhappiness regarding love amid class and wealth are prominent. Bobby replaces one Veronica for another but never really gets over the first one. It haunts him, and Eisenberg's reaction to seeing her and Phil at his nightclub in New York City years after leaving Hollywood is so on the nose as to be uncomfortable. There probably aren't any total throwaways among Allen's filmography, and Cafe Society sits somewhere amid the lower middle, because hints and keys abound as to his worldview throughout his work. Those will always hold weight when considering our great filmmakers. For Cafe Society, setting and place on the shelf are the most compelling attributes - particularly regarding how its maker views the world on his 46th time behind the camera. It's not an optimistic outlook but that's okay. There's always the next Woody Allen picture to look forward to.

The Disc

Lionsgate is handling the home video release of Cafe Society in the U.S., giving it a Region A-locked Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD combo edition. The film was bought by Amazon Studios, in one of the online retail giant's biggest early acquisitions.

It looks exceptionally good in the 2.00:1 aspect ratio (a Storaro favorite) on this high definition disc. Colors and detail appear brilliantly realized. Overall it's simply a gorgeous representation of the movie.

Audio comes through in an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track filled with clean, crisp dialogue and the usual selection of Allen-chosen jazz and vintage standards. English, Spanish, and English for the hearing impaired are also offered.

The special features are, as usual in a Woody Allen release, minimal. Here we have a "On the Red Carpet" (2:13) featurette that basically takes a few snippets of actor interviews from the New York premiere of the film. A Photo Gallery collects 34 images from the set. Slim but expected.

6 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
2 out of 10

Woody Allen's latest, with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, is set in 1930s Hollywood, and while it's hardly essential Allen it still maintains some of the director's unique charms.


out of 10

Latest Articles