Film review: Café Society, directed by Woody Allen

Café Society

It’s not easy to write one full-length screenplay so when Woody Allen churns out missives year after year, one cannot fail to be impressed. Although it’s guaranteed that his stories feature the usual Woody Allen recycled themes (older man-younger woman imbroglio is always at the top of the list), there’s usually enough variation to keep us interested, and Cafe Society, his latest “paean” to 1930s New York City and Hollywood high society, is no exception.

Allen’s protagonist is Bobby Dorfman, with Jesse Eisenberg adroitly filling in for Woody as the nebbishy nephew of a high-powered Hollywood talent agent, Phil, played by Steve Carrell in a non-comic role. At the behest of Rose, Bobby and Phil’s nagging Jewish mother, Phil agrees to help Bobby find a job after he arrives in Hollywood, no longer enamored working in his father’s jewelry business back in New York City.

When Bobby first arrives in Hollywood, he has second thoughts engaging a first-time prostitute whom he’s just hired to come over to his apartment. It establishes the character as a reluctant actor in the rapacious Hollywood universe but the joke of Bobby’s indecision goes on for a little too long.Soon Phil hires Bobby as his gofer and he begins to learn the ins and outs of what the movie business is all about. Allen makes it quite clear at the outset (as he’s always done) that Hollywood is a shallow place indeed. Phil is perhaps the epitome of all the superficiality with his constant name-dropping of legendary Holloywood luminaries. Unfortunately, with all that name-dropping, Allen spends little time developing Phil as a multi-dimensional character.

Still, Allen serves up enough of an engaging plot at this point to keep us interested. First Bobby falls for Uncle Phil’s secretary, Vonny, played by a miscast Kristen Stewart. She’s forced to utter a mouthful of Allen’s anachronistic lines and comes off as a sophisticated liberated woman of our own era rather than perhaps a 1930s ingenue. Nonetheless, there’s a nice plot twist afoot when it’s revealed that the married Uncle Phil has been having a torrid affair with Vonny for about a year. Allen neatly has Bobby uncover the affair by discovering a letter from Rudolph Valentino which Vonny gave to Phil as a gift. Vonny had told Bobby about the letter earlier but indicated she had given it to a made- up boyfriend, in an attempt to hide Phil’s identity.

Bobby’s decision to return to NYC after Vonny’s chooses Phil over him, marks the break into the second half of act two, after the midpoint. He ends up running a successful nightclub owned by his brother Ben, a confirmed gangster. Allen plays Ben’s machinations for laughs. There are never any consequences for a long time as Ben disposes of various rivals by shooting them and then having his thugs dispose of them under newly minted slabs of concrete. It’s also curious how the overly naive Bobby never notices what his brother is up to, and how Allen fails to delve into the nuances of Ben’s sinister but appealing personality.Still, Ben’s fate–and the family’s reaction to it–proves to be far more interesting than the resolution of the Bobby-Vonny romance plot. First there’s Allen’s brilliant portrait of the security guard neighbor who upsets Bobby’s sister Evelyn (he’s a delicious hothead) who ends up as Ben’s next victim after Evelyn fails to realize what Ben is capable of.

There’s also a slew of clever jokes between Evelyn and her pacifist husband over the morality of Ben’s actions as well as the lack of God’s presence in human affairs between Bobby’s quarreling parents. Ben’s decision to convert to Christianity as he faces the electric chair also proves to be the source of some mirth.

Allen can’t resist some additional name-dropping (this time entirely fictional) as he catalogs scions of upper crust NY society. Beyond that, Allen runs out of further requisite bon mots, when he wraps up the Café Society plot. Vonny’s return to New York triggers nostalgia for old times between her and Bobby after they’re both now married. Now attending New Year’s Eve parties on separate coasts, they simply acknowledge, in their own minds, regrets for love’s loss. It’s hardly much of a slam bang ending and the lugubrious finale masks the real need for something a little more clever when it comes to the denouement.

Lewis Papier.