Café Society, so called because of the term given to the bar and club-hopping high life of the 1930s, is Woody Allen’s 47th movie.
Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves behind his father’s jewellery business in New York City to forge a new life for himself in Los Angeles. In search of employment, he visits his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a successful Hollywood agent who helps him out with a job. Taking him under his wing, Phil arranges for his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around town. Bobby immediately falls for her hook, line and sinker, but Vonnie is already involved with someone else.
Café Society is an amiable comedy drama, with the odd darker element preventing it from turning too saccharine. The story sprawls across a good decade or so and is not so much a love triangle as a love quadrangle, asking us to contemplate characters in love with more than one person at a time. It’s all played against a sumptuous 30s backdrop and the magnetic draw of LA and New York of the period. The crisp, comedic dialogue and excellent characterisation make it hugely watchable.
Representing a reunion for Adventureland alumni Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, they both excel here. Eisenberg is back in comfortable territory, a twitchy, neuroses laden geek, yet massively likeable. Kristen Stewart is in appealing form as Vonnie, and together they cultivate believable chemistry from the get-go.
Steve Carell’s performance as Phil Stern, Bobby’s big-shot uncle, also warrants praise. Phil never falls into stereotype because Carell ensures we know he’s got a heart. On the basis of his recent choices, Carell is testing his mettle as a dramatic actor, and as well he should – he is a very good one.
The rest of the cast is resolutely great, including Corey Stoll, another standout as Bobby’s wise-guy brother, Ben. But if there is one minor gripe it is that the excellent Parker Posey and Paul Schneider feel a little underused.
Traditionally, Woody Allen movies have often been love letters to his hometown. Perhaps Café Society, a bit like its protagonists, could be seen as a love letter to two places as the action shifts from Los Angeles with its movie glamour, to New York with all its inherent coolness.
Café Society skirts the odd cliché here and there, but mostly moves refreshingly free of the ‘married man / other woman’ tropes we might expect. Its strengths lie in the zingy dialogue and smart character banter, and equipped with a host of great actors and intelligent plot handling, it’s hard to dislike. The result is a very enjoyable, nostalgia-hued comedy drama that sits comfortably in the upper end of Allen’s exhaustive resume.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10