Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” opened the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, but it wasn’t as good as hoped, just like last year’s “Irrational Man.”
The film takes place in the 1930s, in both New York and Los Angeles, harking back to the days of big studio domination of Hollywood.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as the Woody Allen stand-in, Bobby, who is tired of working in his father’s jewelry store and longs to make it big in Hollywood. So he sets off, with the hopes of getting a job for his super-agent uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), who at first doesn’t seem too eager to do much for him.
Phil is always on the phone, and he keeps Bobby waiting for “an audience” with him for weeks, despite the hounding of Bobby’s mother via phone from New York. She’s the Jewish mother, of course, and has all sorts of funny lines: “Live every day like it’s your last, and some day you’ll be right”; and then when talking about her wayward older son, she says, “First a murderer, then a Christian. What have I done to deserve this?”
But that’s typical Allen shtick. The heart of the story lies in romance. This time, it begins when Bobby finally lands a menial job at his uncle’s agency and is shown around town by his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Bobby is immediately smitten, but Vonnie says she has a boyfriend, and that she’s flattered by the attention, but the relationship can’t go anywhere.
As you might expect in an Allen movie, the 20-something Vonnie is involved with a much older married man. But Bobby holds out hope, while Vonnie holds out hope that the older lover will divorce his wife.
Bobby eventually finds out the identity of the older man, and it’s a big problem for reasons that would be spoilers to explain. So he heads back to New York to work at his gangster brother’s night club. And there he meets another woman, also named Veronica or Vonnie (Blake Lively), and gets married and starts a family.
But the flame for the first Vonnie lives on.
The cinematography in Los Angeles is gorgeous, capturing the heyday of Hollywood. And it was shot digitally by the legendary Vittorio Storaro.
But there’s something lacking in “Cafe Society.” The romance between Eisenberg and Stewart is believable, but the romance between Stewart and her older lover isn’t. And there’s all sorts of Allen-esque commentary on the shallowness of L.A. — something he’s rather famous for.
Parker Posey, who’s becoming an Allen regular, has an amusing supporting role as a woman who moves in both New York and Los Angeles societies. And Corey Stoll has another good supporting role as Bobby’s gangster brother, Ben.
At a press conference afterward, Allen acknowledged that “years ago, I would have played the part that Jesse is playing. But I would have played it narrower, because I’m a comedian. He’s an actor.”
He also said that he’s a romantic at heart, and that “Cafe Society” was essentially a romance, unlike some of his darker movies, such as “Match Point.” But since this is Woody Allen, the romance and comedy are tinged with inevitable sadness because he says his comic perspective takes into account an “existence that is fraught with cruelty” and other disappointments.
That’s also true of Allen’s movies. This one, regrettably, is a disappointment. It’ll do okay box-office business among the Allen faithful, but not much more.