Allen's latest film takes us back to 1930's Hollywood, the Golden Age of the studio system and a time where almost anybody could find something to do in the City of Angels. At the beginning of our story, we meet Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a big-shot Hollywood producer and talent manager who is said to handle superstars like Ginger Rogers and Gary Cooper. When we meet Phil, he's at a fancy party preparing to deal with a number of his clients. Suddenly, he gets a call from his sister, Rose (Jeannie Berlin), who informs him that her son, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), is headed out to Hollywood to fulfill his dreams. From here, the focus of the story turns to Bobby, who manages to play into Eisenberg's over-caffeinated, awkward stereotype while also displaying a certain level of confidence that is refreshing to see from the actor. Bobby has lived in New York his whole life, and he's headed to California with very little to his name.
After settling into a nice hotel for a couple weeks, Bobby finally sets up a meeting with his Uncle Phil. The Hollywood honcho sends him off to do a bunch of menial jobs, and gets his beautiful secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show him around the town. And then a funny thing happens- Bobby falls head-over-heels in love with Vonnie. They spend nearly every weekend together, and as Bobby's influence grows in the complicated social system of 1930s Hollywood, his love for Vonnie also increases. There's only one problem- she already has a boyfriend. That puts the utterly smitten young Hollywood insider in an uncomfortable situation, and as Vonnie focuses on her choice between two men that she loves, Bobby will have to turn his attention to the needs of his own life.
Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that this is only the first half of the movie? Yeah, Allen's latest has one of those odd split things, where the second half is almost an entirely different movie from the first. Unfortunately, the final act kinda relies on a big revelation so I can't talk about what the second half is about without spoiling things. And honestly, it doesn't matter a whole lot because neither half is better than the other. They both have truly illuminating moments, and yet, they're both bogged down in strangely placed storylines and characters. This movie almost seems to have an allergic reaction to greatness. Any time that Allen seems to take the film in a direction that could prove to be fascinating or interesting, he turns to a weird stand-alone piece or a scene involving Bobby's gangster brother (Corey Stoll). When I say that this film is frustrating, I mean it.
Nonetheless, Café Society is driven by two top-notch performances that elevate the movie to some dazzling heights. In fact, I would argue that Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart give two of the year's best performances in this film, something that I would never have expected to say going in. I've always liked Eisenberg in the past, and here, he's both charming and human. I still have a little bit of trouble believing that he'd be able to woo both Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively, but in a Woody Allen movie, I guess we'll have to accept that fact. As good as the Batman v Superman star is in this film, he's completely and totally outshone by his co-star, the utterly brilliant Stewart. She broke into the business with Twilight and Snow White, but she's starting to make some expert career choices (similar to Daniel Radcliffe, and to a lesser degree, Emma Watson). Stewart is luminous and sweet, conveying such a gentle touch that it's very easy to fall in love with her character.
As with all Woody Allen films, Café Society also features an A-list supporting cast, with great performances across the board. Following his breakout comedic turns in The 40 Year Old Virgin and The Office, Carell has evolved into quite the dramatic actor over the last few years, with exceptional roles in Foxcatcher and The Big Short. Carell's Stern is slimy, shallow, and more aggressively unlikable than any other character I've seen him play, and it was a refreshing change of pace. Corey Stoll (Ant-Man, House of Cards) also seems to be having a lot of fun playing the shady Ben, although his character is totally shoehorned into the plot. I quite liked Parker Posey as Rad Taylor, the helpful friend of Bobby who works him into the Hollywood system. Posey is an Allen stalwart, but she stood out here. And finally, although she's very good in the film, it's odd to say that we've finally found a director who can make the remarkably beautiful Blake Lively seem boring. It's a shift from Lively's previous performances, and I thought she nailed it.
Allen's production team (led by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Santo Loquasto) does some outstanding work, and this film is quite the vision to behold. Café Society is dominated by luscious oranges, vibrant blues, and a yellow hue that nearly overwhelms the film, all of which feels like a welcome shift from Allen's often static work in recent years. The music is as jazzy as ever, a directorial trademark that actually feels quite useful in the second half of this one. I just loved being in the world of this film, and even if I was constantly disappointed by the poor directions taken in the script, I was almost entirely swept up by the visual might of this lost Hollywood world.
Café Society is a letdown for sure, but at least it's a beautiful, well-acted letdown. Allen is such a talented comic writer (there's an absolutely tremendous scene early in this film between Bobby and a rookie hooker) and a great observer of character that it pains me to see his movies being so sloppy. This one feels like a particularly strong bummer because of just how good some of the pieces are- you can see them in place, but the puzzle never fits together. As the film wraps up, Allen will certainly be wanting you to think about lost love and regrets, but instead, I just found myself wishing that I'd seen a better movie, one that utilized all of the sumptuous material to great effect. Allen's fans will be satisfied, and Café Society is certainly the closest that the director has come to true greatness in recent years, but there's still the sense that this could have been so much more.
THE FINAL GRADE: B- (6.9/10)
Images courtesy of Lionsgate Films