Film review - Café Society: 'If Woody Allen made a few less films, he'd have produced better ones'
Veteran film-maker's 47th release offers nostalgic comedy, but nothing new
Published 03/09/2016 | 07:00
Woody Allen will turn 81 in a couple of months, but his enthusiasm for film-making seems undimmed. He could be kicking back, avoiding the gutter press and enjoying the proceeds of almost 60 years in showbiz, but instead he continues to knock out at least a film a year.
He's been doing so since the early 1970s, and by my count Café Society is his 47th film as director. I've always found his work ethic admirable, but annoying, because one has the nagging suspicion that if he'd made a few less films, he'd have produced better ones.
Café Society is a perfect case in point. Like a lot of the features he's released over the last couple of decades, it has a slightly rushed and unfinished feel. Allen's strength has always been his writing, in fact he could stake a claim to being the single greatest screenwriter there's ever been, but this film's script veers from the functional and workaday to, on occasion, the sublime.
As usual, his reputation has attracted an impressive ensemble cast - I mean, what actor other than Mia Farrow doesn't want to work with Woody? - and their sterling efforts, allied to a lively enough plot, make Café Society pleasant to watch. You feel, though, that a bit more time and attention to detail could have turned it into something special.
The leading men in Woody's films tend to play roles the younger Allen would have played himself. Jesse Eisenberg has never hidden his admiration for the great man, and turns out to be the best Woody proxy since Owen Wilson in 'Midnight in Paris'. Eisenberg is Bobby Dorfman, a perky but unemployed young Brooklyn Jew who strikes out for California to make his fortune.
It's the 1930s, Hollywood is booming, and Bobby has an in: his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is a legendary talent agent who represents the likes of James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck .
At first, Phil avoids meeting Bobby at all, and seems anxious not to be reminded of his blue collar eastern roots. But eventually he relents, gives Bobby a job as his runner, and over time the two men become close.
Meanwhile, Bobby falls in love with his uncle's secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a beautiful Nebraskan who shows him the ropes and becomes a kind of confidante. But Vonnie has a boyfriend, an older married man she meets in secret, so Bobby can only watch and wait. What he doesn't know, however, is that the married man in question is Uncle Phil, who's prevaricating endlessly about whether or not to leave his wife.
No Woody Allen film would be complete without a vaguely creepy older man/younger woman romance - Ms Stewart is 26, Mr Carell 54. But in Café Society there are plenty of other things going on in the background. Blake Lively (looking a little lost) plays a New York socialite to whom Bobby gravitates, Corey Stoll plays his brother Ben, a New York gangster with a nasty habit of executing anyone who argues with him, and Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin are his elderly, bickering parents.
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, that's no surprise: Allen has always been simultaneously attracted to, and repelled by, Hollywood, and has explored the America of his childhood before in films like 'Bullets Over Broadway', 'The Purple Rose of Cairo', 'Radio Days' and 'Annie Hall'. Café Society isn't a patch on any of those, and its constant name-dropping of now-forgotten stars like Adolphe Menjou, Joan Blondell and Robert Taylor will baffle younger viewers.
If Café Society is a nostalgic film, it's also a world-weary one: Allen himself provides a framing voice over which sounds both tired and wise. There are good performances, from Eisenberg and especially Kristen Stewart, whose portrayal of Vonnie is luminous and intriguing. The screenplay flags at times, and feels unedited, but every now and then it fizzes to life and reminds you who's writing it.
At one point Bobby's dad sighs and says, "I accept death, but under protest." "Protest to who?", his mother replies.
Films coming soon...
Hell or High Water (Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, Chris Pine); Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, Ayelet Zurer, Morgan Freeman); Captain Fantastic (Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn); Anthropoid (Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan).