Film & Television

Movie Review: ‘Café Society’ — Simple Pleasures from a Seasoned Director

Kirsten Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg star in Café Society.

Café Society showcases the talents of a number of fine actresses. Most surprising and delightful is Kristen Stewart as Vonnie, the young woman torn between her true love (Bobby Dorfman, played by Jesse Eisenberg) and her powerful boss (Phil Stern, played by Steve Carrell). As the mother of a teenager, I am most familiar with Stewart’s monotone performances in the Twilight series (she brought damsel in distress to a new and oh-so-dreary level). In Café Society, she is fresh and funny, and lights up the screen. Her chemistry with Eisenberg feels genuine — this is their third movie together — and you do root for them.

Another popular young actress plays Bobby’s rebound girlfriend when he returns to and finds success in New York as a nightclub manager. Blake Lively (most recently ravaged by a ravenous shark in The Shallows) is another teen icon, who has graduated to grownup roles. She spent five seasons as Serena van der Woodsen in the CW series Gossip Girl. And, when she wasn’t living the Upper Eastside high life on TV, she was playing soccer and swapping blue jeans in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies. In Café Society, she is luminous and statuesque, but just vacant enough to make Bobby miss Vonnie.

Bobby’s larger-than-life Jewish mother is played by Jeannie Berlin, best remembered as the jilted bride in 1972’s Heartbreak Kid (directed by her real-life mother Elaine May). She’s marvelous, chewing up every scene she’s in (not to mention her hapless husband and children). Sari Lennick is equally good, if not as loud, as Bobby’s busybody sister Evelyn. Parker Posey does her usual appealing, quirky work as a bicoastal modeling agent. And, Anna Camp makes a brief role memorable, as novice, tearful and Jewish prostitute, Candy.

As the center of all these women’s attention, Jesse Eisenberg mixes intelligence, charm and a decided geekiness. In fact, the actor effectively channels Woody Allen in his younger years, as he did in 2012’s To Rome With Love (and as Owen Wilson did in 2011’s Midnight in Paris).

Allen himself provides Café Society’s narration. His voice is immediately recognizable, but he sounds older and tired. No great surprise there, I suppose. After all, he is older and after over five decades of mostly wonderful work, has every reason to be tired.

Café Society isn’t as wonderful as it might have been. It’s not as wonderful as his early classics. It’s not even as wonderful as some of his more recent achievements. It’s fairly predictable, fairly familiar . . . at times just plain fair. But, in a season of talking pets, suicide squads, and ghost-busters, it’s refreshing to sit back and enjoy pretty pictures, a delightful cast and a simple story from a dear, old friend.

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  • Gail Willis August 11, 2016 at 1:50 am

    This almost perfectly mirrors my reaction to this film. Not sorry I saw it; many parts I liked. Overall not my favorite, but still better than almost anything out there this summer. In spite of (or maybe because of) his picadillos I am a fan. Midnight in Paris caused us to re-order a vacation plan & fly to Paris for a short but memorable interlude. A bigger vote for this summer’s film offerings – Maggie’s Plan! Almost a perfect feminist response to most rom cons!

  • Alexandra MacAaron August 10, 2016 at 11:39 am

    From Author:

    Thanks for sharing your concerns, Noelle. Woody Allen has certainly faced controversy. I did address both the Soon-Yi marriage and the accusation about his daughter in my story. Soon-Yi was an adult when he began the relationship and she was never his child (she was the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Andre Previn). The accusations Farrow made about Allen molesting their daughter Dylan were discredited by a police investigation. Farrow’s supporters (naturally) think he’s guilty. Allen’s supporters believe that Farrow fabricated the tale because she was angry about his relationship with Soon-Yi. Regardless, he was officially exonerated.

    Your other point about his depiction of women is one that has been raised before. But, opinions vary. His actresses, for example, disagree — and he has directed more Oscar-nominated and winning women than any other director, including Diane Keaton (winner, Annie Hall), Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Mariel Hemingway, Dianne Weist (who won for 2 Allen films: Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway), Judy Davis, Jennifer Tilly, Mira Sorvino (winner, Mighty Aphrodite), Samantha Morton, Penelope Cruz (Winner, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Cate Blanchett (winner Blue Jasmine), and Sally Hawkins. Apparently the Academy sees no problem with his depictions of women.

    As far as the law is concerned, Allen has committed no crimes (falling in love with his ex-partner’s grown daughter is creepy but not unlawful and I personally do not believe he ever molested a child). I realize that some of our readers choose to boycott Allen’s movies, and that is absolutely their prerogative. But, I also think that his films appeal to mature women more than many of the options out there today. That’s why we continue to review them.

  • Stacia Friedman August 9, 2016 at 11:31 am

    I agree. I was delighted by Woody Allen’s locations that captured the glamour and romance of LA & NYC in the 1930s, along fabulous costumes and a superb soundtrack. Did the plot make sense? Who cares! Pour me another!

  • Noelle August 9, 2016 at 9:53 am

    This is a site called Women’s Voices for Change yet you’re reviewing (promoting) a film by a filmmaker that has most likely committed acts of sexual aggression against a female minor. Also, most of his movies have puerile or hysteric depictions of women. Please consider whose films you are showcasing on a site devoted to women’s voices.

  • Andrea August 9, 2016 at 8:57 am

    Another great film suggestion for a very hot summer afternoon. Thanks Alexandra!