Cafe Society

Posted by Joel Copling on July 22, 2016

Woody Allen's "Cafe Society" is a romantic tale of young love spliced together with a cynical yarn about the good, old days of Hollywood. Within those relatively simple terms, it works quite well. It is, as per usual with Allen, populated by respected and respectable actors delivering literate, sometimes on-the-nose dialogue that confronts philosophical matters and busy plot elements that are more conventional by nature. These are likable characters even while doing things that are questionable or even beyond the pale, and that in part has to do with Allen's screenplay and narration that works in spite of its serving exactly the wrong purpose (to dictate character action and motivation). Suddenly, we're swept up in these characters and this milieu.

The story follows Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a disaffected former assistant jeweler who moves to Hollywood to find work with his big-time hotshot agent of an uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell). There, he meets and falls head over heels for Veronica (Kristen Stewart), "Vonnie" for short, Phil's longtime assistant and, as it turns out, mistress for whom he is leaving a cushy life with his wife and children. The film milks a lot of its dramatic irony from this dynamic, and it's a lot of fun to watch unravel. The trajectory is a bit preordained, with Bobby and Vonnie separating and finding their own versions of happiness -- Vonnie with Phil as the much older man makes studio deals with a myriad of celebrities who get name-dropped at great speed, Bobby with another Veronica (Blake Lively) with whom he starts a life and family.

The key to these characters is the growth that is handily conveyed by Allen, who guides us through these central characters and some memorable ones on the side, such as Phil's siblings. There's Rose (Jeannie Berlin), Bobby's mother, who worries her head off to Phil and husband Marty (Ken Stott) about her son being on the other side of the world. There's Evelyn (Sari Lennick), who married an intellectual (read: Communist) named Leonard (Stephen Kunken), and everyone said this was a perfect fit. There's Ben (Corey Stoll, with hair), a ruthless gangster whose habit of killing anyone who makes him nervous or angry is a running joke the film doesn't need. In fact, so much focus on the supporting characters is a distraction from the heart of the movie itself, although the time with them is generally pleasant.

That heart is the four relationships at the film's center. Eisenberg is a sturdy presence as Bobby, idealistic about a potential life in Hollywood with the bigwigs as he enjoys doing menial labor for a big movie production company. Stewart is also quite good as Vonnie, believable as a romantic foil for both Bobby, with whom she shares pleasant conversation, and Phil, for whom she feels a great affection that is, perhaps not entirely, reciprocated. Lively is luminous as the other Veronica, falling instantaneously for Bobby's pragmatic sense of humor and outlook on life. Carell is the highlight of the cast in a deceptively simple role as the bigwig, whose straitlaced manner slowly corrodes as matters of the heart threaten to overwhelm him. The cost of these relationships, deliciously spider-webbed through sudden jumps months and even years into the future, comes to a head in a scene of surprising, gentle honesty. The cast is where a lot of this strength lies, and "Cafe Society" is better than anticipated because of actors who treat their roles with compassion for flawed people.

Film Information

Jesse Eisenberg (Bobby), Kristen Stewart (Vonnie), Steve Carell (Phil), Blake Lively (Veronica), Corey Stoll (Ben), Parker Posey (Rad), Sari Lennick (Evelyn), Stephen Kunken (Leonard), Jeannie Berlin (Rose), Ken Stott (Marty), Paul Schneider (Steve), Anna Camp (Candy).

Directed and written by Woody Allen.

Rated PG-13 (violence, a drug reference, suggestive material, smoking).

96 minutes.

Released in select cities on July 15, 2016.