Cafe Society – Review (*** 1/2)

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Nine Lives

It may not represent much more than an entertaining holding pattern in Woody Allen’s late-stage career, but with charm and style to spare, it’s hard to harbour much ill will towards this distinctly mid-tier romp from the legendary filmmaker.

In the 1930s, New Yorker Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) makes the brave move to Hollywood where he runs errands for his talent agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell). This brings him into contact with Phil’s lovely secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), with whom he becomes immediately smitten. Over the years, their friendship (and whatever else it becomes) takes some fascinating twists and turns, spanning across the East and West coasts.

Cafe Society is, like much of Allen’s output these days, an enjoyable yarn the writer-director could probably have knocked out in his sleep. It’s wryly funny, cheeky, classy, intellectual and deceptively light, anchored by a marvelous cast and some of Allen’s most visually sharp storytelling.

Eisenberg is, of course, a quintessential Allen protagonist and delivers exactly what you’d expect, especially as this isn’t his first rodeo with the director. The real surprise, then, comes by way of Stewart, a tremendously talented actress who rarely gets her due (though did become the first American actress to win a coveted Cesar Award last year), and shows another facet of her talent here by demonstrating rare charm and radiance. Her dialogues with both Eisenberg and Carell convey her undervalued versatility and prove her capable of so much more than the moody dourness she’s stereotypically derided for. That’s not to forget solid supporting work from the likes of Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Anna Camp, Paul Schneider and Allen himself as the narrator.

In addition to a pithy script and strong cast, this is also an absolutely beautiful looking film, with legendary DP Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) tackling Allen’s first digital shoot. With more animated pans and sweeps than you’d expect from the director, combined with terrific lighting and gorgeous natural locations, it’s not hyperbolic to suggest that this might just be his most aesthetically pleasing film since 1979’s classic Manhattan (and includes an homage shot of the Brooklyn Bridge for good measure).

When it’s all said and done, Cafe Society may not leave a huge impression dramatically or comedically, but it entertains within itself, and if some might consider Allen coasting here, then it’s a damn fine way to phone it in. It may be no Annie Hall, but it sure ain’t From Rome with Love either.

*** 1/2

Cafe Society is in cinemas now

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