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Saturday
May142016

Cannes Review: Woody Allen's "Café Society"

This review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad. It's reprinted here in a slightly expanded version...

Few things in life are as regular as Woody Allen movies. For the past 40 years or so they arrive exactly once a year. In recent years they generally premiere out of competition at Cannes and predictably reignite the endless cycle of media wars about Woody Allen.

The only thing irregular about the experience is the reviews, box office, and Oscars. For the past 10 years or so it’s been especially hard to predict. In that time he’s delivered critical and commercial Oscar winning hits that the media fawned over (Blue Jasmine, Midnight in Paris), well received films that didn’t quite crossover to that same extent (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), critical flops that did surprisingly okay at the box office (To Rome With Love), trifles that people tolerated (Scoop), reanimated abandoned projects that everyone wished had stayed dead (Whatever Works), as well as a critical and commercial flop (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) and one that didn't actually seem to exist at all (Cassandra’s Dream).

In short (too late!) his films come with a lot of history and even more baggage.

His latest, Café Society, begins with very little literal baggage as a young optimistic man named Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves New York for Hollywood for reasons that don’t extend much beyond “trying something new.” [More...]

The first half of the picture takes place in Hollywood where Bobby gets work with his big deal uncle Phil (Steve Carell, weirdly subdued for such a "big" role) a powerful agent in the movie business and befriends colorful figures like a happily married sharp-tongued couple (happily married in a Woody Allen picture — come again?) played with brassy aplomb by Parker Posey and Paul Schneider. We don't spend nearly enough time with them because they're fresh air whenever they do appear. Bobby also meets an innocent hooker (Anna Camp) because this is a Woody Allen picture and if a character doesn’t work in academia, showbiz, art, organized crime, or publishing in his universe, they’re an innocent hooker.

The original VeronicaWhile in Hollywood Bobby falls head over heels for his uncle’s secretary Veronica nicknamed “Vonnie” (Kristen Stewart) who is unfortunately already attached. To whom, she won’t say. Once you get past the double-take oddness of Kristen Stewart’s modernity accessorized with a dainty bow in her hair — she makes no effort to play “period” — she’s compellingly ambiguous in both her romantic feelings and the depth of her character.

In the second half of the picture we return to New York City where the heartbroken Bobby joins his gangster brother (Corey Stoll, underused but fun) in the nightclub business. Soon everyone in high society knows Bobby’s name.

Enter another lovely Veronica (Blake Lively, dazzling in her introduction) to steal his heart. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the original Vonnie, still otherwise attached, reenters the picture because it’s not a Woody Allen movie without multiple adults self-sabotaging their relationships!

the scenes with Bobby's family are the comic highlights

Like many of the infamous director’s pictures, Café Society often plays out more like a novelistic stage comedy or radio serial than a standard movie since the narrator (Woody himself) fills in all the backstory, character profiles, and gaps between proper scenes as the plot zooms through several years.

This picture evolves into a wistful romantic dramedy that’s caught between the coasts – its soul and family are in New York City but its eyes and body are perpetually seduced by Hollywood glamour. To that end, praise is in order for Woody’s long time production designer Santo Loquasto (Oscar nominated for Zelig, Bullets Over Broadway and Radio Days) for parading the wealth of the characters around in their environments and the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (a three time Oscar winner for the classics Reds, Apocalypse Now, and The Last Emperor) who grants the movie considerable warmth and a soft lushness. Blake Lively and Kristen Stewart, the two Veronicas, really ought to build shrines to Storaro because they’ve never looked more beautiful onscreen.

Veronica the Second

Café Society, in the grand scheme of the director’s long filmography, is overly familiar and insubstantial; it won’t convert any new fans. While most of the movie’s individual parts (adulterous romance, gangster business, Old Hollywood, Jewish family comedy) are compelling, they aren’t truly in conversation so its unclear what any of them really have to do with each other beyond reflecting the director's usual fetishes.

Still, taken on its own, it’s a perfectly pleasant if featherweight dramedy with one eye on Old Hollywood (masturbatory name-dropping galore for movie buffs) and the other one on neurotic Jewish families. The scenes with Bobby’s sister and brother-in law (Sari Lennick & Stephen Sunken) and ever-bickering parents (Jeannie Berlin & Ken Stott) are easily the film’s funniest and most endearing. In fact, had the film opted to focus on either or both of these couples, it might have felt wholly original.

Between its bicoastal identities, though, whatever lingering effect the movie does conjure comes from the melancholy of its lost romance and those dreamy looks in Bobby and Vonnie’s eyes when they think of the other. 

The stars at the opening night of Cannes

The Cannes Film Festival runs through May 22nd. Director George Miller (Mad Max Fury Road) presides over the competition juryCafé Society premiered Out of Competition.

Grade: B-
Oscar Chances: I'd say unlikely but you can never entirely rule out a Woody Allen movie in the Original Screenplay and Supporting Actress (Kristen Stewart) categories until you see how the larger year plays out. 

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Reader Comments (13)

Nathaniel, are you in Cannes?! - you lucky SOB!
Are you gonna be there 'till the 22nd?
How many screenings have you lined up?


For my money, Blake Lively never looked more hot than in THE TOWN, with her heavy, thick makeup and kinda slutty, trashy look. Her next best look: her California surfer girl-look in Savages.

May 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

Ulrich - i am not in Cannes but i managed a screening for this one so i pretended for 2 hours that i was.

May 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I do want to see this as I do like Woody Allen no matter how mediocre some of his recent work are.

May 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

Please give this movie a Best Cinematography nomination !!! Why not a win ?

May 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClément@Paris

Where's Marion Cotillard when you need her?

May 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

Good review. Say whatever, but Woody Allen
is the only of the great american directors who
still love actresses.
Writing roles, showing their beauty, appreciating their presence.
Some call him a misogynist for the way he treats
them on his movies, but what about those who simply don't
show them on their movies, how to call them?

May 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly S

@Kimberly
Precisely.

May 15, 2016 | Unregistered Commentergoran

It's a bit disingenuous for any outlet covering film to avoid the topic of Woody Allen's past abuses - it illustrates the point Ronan Farrow just made in the Hollywood Reporter all too well.

May 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSean Diego

"It's a bit disingenuous for any outlet covering film to avoid the topic of Woody Allen's past abuses - it illustrates the point Ronan Farrow just made in the Hollywood Reporter all too well."

What more is there to say about it? Is ever review of a Woody Allen movie going forward just supposed to have a footnote which says "BTW, someone once accused the director of this movie of being a pedophile" whether or not it has anything to do with the movie at hand? The issue was heavily covered when it first happened, it was heavily covered again three years ago, there hasn't been any new information uncovered, until there's actually something new to report the story is kind of dead.

May 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMJS

MJS -- exactly and anyway

Sean -- I said all i'm going to say about it here and here. It's not really a personal website's business to play litigator or judge. Not really my style. I have always been someone who tried to focus on the work, not the personal lives of celebrities (when I have broken this in a couple of instances over the years, in a negative way, I have always felt gross about it afterwards)

And people are so selective about these things. If we demanded idealogical stances against every actor or director who ever was accused of committing a crime, whether or not they went to court, settled out of court, or werent even legally charged (Woody's case) we would have very few movies left to talk about.

Goran & Kimberly -- I also have this issue with people hating on Von Trier's movies for misogyny or attacking Hitchcock for how he viewed/treated women. When it comes to the movies, they still gave so many great actresses incredible roles and boosted their careers. It's not like a lot of male directors are known for that. I'd rather deal with a famous director with complicated women issues than those that only have them in the movies as ghosts, props, sex objects, or soon to be dead women (hundreds of other directors)

May 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

"I said all i'm going to say about it here and here. It's not really a personal website's business to play litigator or judge. Not really my style. I have always been someone who tried to focus on the work, not the personal lives of celebrities (when I have broken this in a couple of instances over the years, in a negative way, I have always felt gross about it afterwards)"

THIS. I always felt sort of gross the way people did a complete 180 on Mel Gibson and really tanked his career in a major way.

May 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Nathaniel, you're one of the only people who seems sane on this issue.

May 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Cafe Society may not be the huge commercial success of other summer blockbuster films, the film is easily one of my favorite films of the year, delivering a true cinematically entrancing experience.

December 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDevendra

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