Café Society (2016) ☆ ☆ ☆

Writer-director Woody Allen just keeps chugging along like the Little Filmmaker Who Could, churning out an average of one film per year since 1969, beginning with the hilarious Take the Money and Run.  His style has changed over the years; slapstick has largely fallen by the wayside; but his keen understanding of human behavior has deepened and sharpened.  His newest, Café Society, is an intriguing character study which, I believe, would have been much different if he had tackled the same material decades ago.

In the 1930s a young man from New York City, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), travels to Hollywood to spend time with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a movie mogul.  Bobby is urged to find a girl, and he finally connects with his uncle’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).  Little does he know that she is trysting with a married man.  Eventually everyone discovers everyone else’s secrets and hearts are broken.  This melancholy meditation on love, lost opportunity, unwise choices and feelings that are not diminished by time is vintage Allen, even if he skips the gigantic potential to poke fun at Hollywood pretensions, and specific stars.  Allen takes his premise very seriously, avoiding the easy laughs that satire would provide in favor of fairly deep characterization and his usual dialectic regarding life on either coast of these United States.

The movie works because of Allen’s skilled writing, and good performances from his leads.  Eisenberg can be incredibly irritating (Batman vs. Superman, Exhibit A), yet here he channels a young Woody-ish character quite convincingly.  With Allen himself narrating the story, the connection is powerful, and Eisenberg is properly restrained and quite effective.  I was not prepared for how good Kristen Stewart is.  I thought she was vapid in the Twilight films, but had heard that she had improved markedly, especially in a 2014 independent film titled Clouds of Sils Maria, and now I believe it.  She is terrific as a smart young woman who cannot choose who she should love.  Steve Carell is less effective as uncle Phil, but that may be because everyone (including me) keeps expecting him to do something kooky, and he never does.

Café Society is good Woody Allen, but not great.  It isn’t as funny as one would expect, though Bobby’s mother (Jeannie Berlin!) has a few great lines.  Its dark comedy, involving gangster shenanigans, isn’t too dark, and he really pulls his punches about Hollywood.  It works primarily as a drama with comic touches, and the feeling with which I left the theater was more of a bittersweet nostalgic pang, exulting in the romance yet knowing that its ecstasy is fleeting and its absence leaves a void that will never fill.  ☆ ☆ ☆.  4 August 2016.

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