Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW: CAFÉ SOCIETY

 

Once again, Woody Allen sweeps us up into the magic, elegance, glamour and excitement of an era long past with CAFÉ SOCIETY. But that's where the "once again" part ends as Allen pushes himself beyond his patented funny and delivers a film with emotionally resonant characters (but still dealing with myriad neuroses) and a story as rich as the film's visuals.

Filled with bittersweet poignancy, heartbreak and humor, a tinge of melancholy laced with a longing for days gone and a wistful wondering of "what if", as well as regret and remorse, Allen immerses us in the 1930's, jockeying between the glittering world of the Hollywood dream factory and the criminal element and cement shoes mindset of New York City, telling this story through the eyes of one, Bobby Dorfman. 80-year old Allen also changes things up technically, shooting digitally for the first time and working with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and even jumps ship from his long-time distributor Sony Pictures Classics in favor of the fresh and new Amazon Studios.

Bobby Dorfman isn't content with his plain wrap life in Brooklyn. Living with his parents, Rose and Marty, the only excitement in his life is thanks to visits by his older brother Ben who always has a pocket full of money and a quick-spinning story as to its genesis. His sister Evelyn, long gone from the small apartment, is married to a nebbish named Leonard and spends her every waking moment kvetching about something, anything, everything. Despite the usual familial noise, there is no doubt about the importance of family to each of the Dorfmans. But Bobby wants out. He has big dreams.

It's that idea of family that prompts Rose to call her brother Phil Stern in Hollywood. Phil is a powerhouse agent to the rich and famous, and himself beyond successful. Rose wants him to give Bobby a job. Brushed aside for several weeks and not even taking a meeting with Bobby, Phil eventually does see him and does indeed give him a job. In an effort to make his nephew more comfortable and familiar with the terrain, he even has his personal secretary Vonnie take Bobby under her wing and serve as tour guide. Also making his move more pleasant and engaging is Rad Taylor, an effervescent bi-coastal modeling agent and fellow New Yorker, and her husband Steve, with whom Bobby easily becomes friends.

Vonnie is a cool customer. Unimpressed with "stars" and the whole idea of "come to Hollywood, get discovered and make it big", only serves to make her more appealing to Bobby, who is already falling head over heels in love with her. But Vonnie already has a boyfriend; a journalist who travels a lot on assignment. Or so we are led to believe. It seems Vonnie has a few secrets of her own. Miraculously, Vonnie is dumped by her boyfriend and is free to pursue a relationship with Bobby, whom she has grown quite attracted to. But then as Bobby's luck would have it, Vonnie's boyfriend wants her back and wants to marry her. So she dumps Bobby.

Totally disillusioned and heartbroken by the truths that unfold, Bobby heads back to New York and starts working for his brother, running a nightclub designed to attract the glitterati of the "café society". While Bobby runs the club, Ben looks after his other "business" as full-fledged gangster, even going so far as to help sister Evelyn with a little problem she has with a neighbor.

Bobby thrives in this environment. His nervous chattiness bodes well for him. He meets and marries Veronica, a blonde goddess who always looks as if she's walked out of a George Hurrell photo. But then the day arrives when out of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, who walks into Bobby's? Vonnie and her husband.

Jesse Eisenberg has all the "Nervous Nelly" ticks, tones and intonations to be a younger version of Woody Allen; which is undoubtedly why Allen cast him as Bobby Dorfman. Serving the character well, Eisenberg is believable as the wide-eyed insecure nerdy kid from New York and eventually does transform into someone with a degree of "café society" polish, but it's some of his physical mannerisms and attempted nuances in the middle that are poor mimicries of some of the Hollywood gods like Cary Grant; guaranteed to annoy classic film fans with trained eyes to spot "homage". However, where Allen's casting of Eisenberg is so keenly done is with Eisenberg's vocal cadence. Allen himself serves as the film's voice-over narrator, effectively telling the backstory and exposition as if reading a bedtime story. With the POV being that of Bobby Dorfman, the transition from Allen's halting reading style to Eisenberg in character is seamless perfection.

One of the most glorious elements of CAFÉ SOCIETY is Kristen Stewart. She is simply charming. Having just seen her performance in "Equals" the day before screening CAFÉ SOCIETY, and her work over the past year in "Clouds of Sils Maria" and "Camp X-Ray", not to mention "On the Road" a few years back, it is indisputable that Stewart has matured into an accomplished actress. No longer essentially viewed as being "one note", as Vonnie she captivates with a knowing innocence, but with a comfortable confidence we haven't seen from her before. But then we are treated to a transformation from innocent unjaded Vonnie to star-struck rich and powerful Vonnie thanks to her husband - wow! Stewart captures to a tee the exuberance and Hollywood chattiness that we see showcased in classic films as part of the societal culture in the 30's. She is as delightful in lace trimmed bobby socks and hair ribbon as she is in a liquid charmeuse evening gown dripping in diamonds. You love Vonnie. You gravitate towards her. And Stewart is as believable in her chemistry with Eisenberg as she is with Vonnie's boss Phil played by Steve Carell.

Speaking of Steve Carell. As Phil Stern he is perfect. 'Nuf said. He is the epitome of 1930's Hollywood glamour and power and the images we now only see captured in movies on TCM. Another bit of glamour comes in the form of Blake Lively's Veronica. Stunning, golden goddess, something Lively embodies on and off screen.

Parker Posey had me at frizzy curled blonde hello. A dynamo of call-it-like-she-sees it energy and being a successful woman in a male dominated world, as Rad, Posey steals every scene she's in. She fits in to the era, the look and the persona perfectly. And as Steve, Paul Schneider is a perfect complement to Posey's Rad.

Anna Camp is simply adorable as giggly first-time lady of the evening Candy. In her one scene with Eisenberg (during Bobby's lonely weeks awaiting a meeting with his Uncle Phil), she outshines Eisenberg a hundred-fold in a key motel room scene. From the voice to the dress, the jewelry - an enchanted charming fun performance.

Corey Stoll nails the two-sides of the coin "mobster/mama's good son" Ben emotionally, physically and with strong vocal nuance and cadence. Stoll is fun to watch. And then talk about a make-up job! Sari Lennick has never looked so "dowdy" yet pretty. Totally transformed as Jewish sister/daughter Evelyn. Love her performance. Energetic, bossy. Rounding out the Dorfman family are Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as Rose and Marty. As with Lennick, Berlin is physically aged up and dowdied down, but it's the emotion and inflection in her performance that captures the essence of everyone's Jewish mother.

Story is rock solid. If this were a book on a shelf in a bookstore, I would buy it and read it and read it again. Characters are well defined, believable, engaging and resonant. The novelization of the film's design is engaging. Allen has lensed it with a chapter format and the voice-over narration of a "storyteller" adds another dimension to the moviegoing experience.

Allen made a genius selection in Vittorio Storaro as cinematographer; especially given this being Allen's first foray into shooting digitally. The film is beauteous. Hollywood in the world of Phil Stern is saturated technicolor, heightening the senses and tacitly honing in on the artificiality of Hollywood. An opening nighttime party scene is gorgeous. An uptilt camera dutching on Carell's Phil immediately sets the tone for power. The beach scenes with Bobby and Vonnie are exquisite. But then we have the golden warmth of home in the motel room in which Bobby lives which notably shares the same basic color palette as the Dorfman apartment in New York BUT with saturation and a warmer amber glow, so we get the emotional connection of "home" but with the heightened reality of a dreamer arriving in Hollywood. And then when Bobby returns to NY and runs Ben's nightclub, there is a meeting in the middle between the visual hype of Hollywood and the flatter bland palette of his childhood apartment. Wonderful visual grammar and texture. Framing is precise yet surprisingly varied with some key POV dutching, rare for a Woody Allen picture.

Santo Loquasto's production design is spot on, transporting us and immersing us in not only the Hollywood glamour of the era but the edginess and excitement of East Coast gangster wealth. Costume designer Suzy Benzinger soars with the period perfect clothing, and never moreso than with dressing the women, be it everyday middle class New York or high-brow red carpet ready "café society" gowns. Stunning work. Notable is that Benzinger keeps the men more in shades of brown and tan, allowing the women to stand-out and be center stage as show pieces to the machinations of love.

Allen's love of the era is evident, and is becoming even moreso with his last few films. And nowhere is CAFÉ SOCIETY more wonderful than with the soundtrack. The music is timeless, classic, telling and immediately identifiable, but when you listen closely, each piece of music is perfectly placed to what's happening emotionally or visually within a specific scene. There is always a lovely undercurrent with each scene, each chapter of each character's life.

Just one look and you too, will want to cozy up with the CAFÉ SOCIETY.

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Blake Lively, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott

 

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