Review: 'Café Society'

Woody Allen serves up same old cold, stale coffee
BEAUTIFUL DISASTER: 'Café Society' is the best looking terrible movie you will see all year.

Narratively speaking, Café Society is the film version of a Grandpa Abe Simpson anecdote. Famous names are dropped, pointlessly. Trivial matters about the past are flaunted without much context.

Director, writer and producer Woody Allen narrates, announcing the qualities of his characters, even as we're trying to watch them and figure them out. There's no comedic understatement, or irony—what we see is what we get.

During the Depression, a kid from New York named Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is trying to make it in Hollywood when he falls for his married uncle's mistress, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Neither uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a brittle, high-powered agent, nor Vonnie, who is his Phil's secretary, clues the young man. Heartbroken, Bobby returns to New York and gets involved in a chic Manhattan nightclub bankrolled with blood money from Bobby's gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll).

This is the best looking terrible movie you will see all year. Eminent cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds) makes Stewart a first-class love object. She positively glows on screen, while 1930s Los Angeles—in golds, terra-cottas and swimming-pool aquas, shimmers behind her. The production design by Allen regular Santo Loquasto sums up the splendor of the crest of the Art Deco days.

This reverie of gilded Hollywood seems to make Allen sleepy. (Hail Caesar may not have added up, either, but the people in it were interested in their business. They had angles.) The half-drawn characters keep turning up, while Bobby keeps going forward, more innocent than ever—he's the least morally ambiguous character Eisenberg has ever played.

If this is a comedy, it's the kind of comedy that grows into a shrugging, blunt finish about how no one gets what they want in this world. There's a line here about the hazard of mixing champagne with lox and bagels. I'd interpret that as the contrast between Jeannie Berlin (as Bobby and Ben's mother), dispensing the salty Jewish wisdom, in contrast with the low-moraled bi-coastals in the entertainment business. It could be that Allen is copping a plea: if I'm a selfish person—in Berlin's phrase, "not a real Jew" (to describe the adulterous, the violent, or the half-bright)—it's because the movies made me that way.

Café Society
PG-13; 96 Mins.
Camera 12

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