Reviewed by: Mark Geraghty Review date: October 18, 2016
Screen Fantastique rating: 3 stars
Woody Allen’s Cafe Society effect on the viewer can be summed up much like its lead characters; enthusiastic to start but, ultimately, less interesting the longer the relationship goes on. The film is not a complete misfire, but the moral ambiguity that works its way into the lead character’s motivations in the film’s second half makes Cafe Society one of Allen’s less appealing recent efforts. (For those looking for a comparison, it’s on par with last year's Irrational Man.) It’s fair to suggest that Allen believes that he’s simply holding a mirror to anybody and everybody, and that people find themselves conflicted about past loves. In his world this may be true, but for those not familiar with the predicament of Jesse Eisenberg’s Bobby and Kristen Stewart’s Vonnie, there’s little to relate to and the ponderous contemplation of “what could have been” sucks the energy from Cafe Society’s second half.
Allen opts to set Cafe Society in 1930s Hollywood and New York, populating his story with larger-than-life Hollywood players and New York gangsters. Against this background of glitzy artifice, Allen thrusts Bobby, a young Jewish boy from the Bronx who heads to Hollywood looking for an opportunity with his successful Uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), a major talent Agent. The story skips along at great pace early on, matching the wincing, blinking, toe-tapping energy of Bobby as he persists in getting an audience with Uncle in an effort to crack the big time! The film's best exchange takes place early on, as Bobby’s Jewish guilt crashes into his need for a good shagging with a “working girl”. The story turns toward a more straight forward romance with the introduction of Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), with whom Bobby literally falls in love with at first sight. There’s an initial feeling that Cafe Society could be something special, but, as it turns out, Stewart’s first scenes are her best. Neither Stewart nor Eisenberg sustain their performances and he ends up looking like a cad and she ends up looking like a trouble maker.
While Woody Allen films aren’t generally feted for their technical achievements, Cafe Society sees the collaboration between Allen and award-winning Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The Italian had drifted from the American film scene and had not worked on a Hollywood feature film since 2005, when he photographed Paul Schrader’s largely forgettable Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. While Allen’s films could never be described as being “Hollywood”, Storaro’s re-entry onto the American film scene is welcome and Cafe Society is one of Allen’s best looking films. The film’s Art Direction, Set Decoration and Costume Departments are all worthy of mention, as Cafe Society relies on all of these elements to help sell the story and they all pass with flying colours. Long-time Allen collaborator Production Designer Santo Loquasto does a great job of bringing all of the production elements together, but, ultimately, none of them can counter the fact that neither Bobby or Vonnie are especially likable. Allen relies too much on the emotional weakness they have for each other and, not the first time, leaves the viewer with a feeling of contempt for both as others around them become victims of a romance that never seemed quite right in the first place.
Cafe Society is in cinemas around Australia from October 19, 2016.