"Late-period Allen" seems to be the buzz word of the moment when reviewing Woody Allen's yearly release. I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean, and it's a categorization I'm sure he would hate. I mean, he just keeps making movies and probably will until he dies. Some land. Some don't. I usually enjoy them no matter what. He doesn't really care either way, most likely. Another year. Another Woody. And, no surprise, I like this one.
Café Society is a funny movie, a romantic one, and a beautifully shot period piece that plays on classic Woody Allen themes, most notably the difference between Los Angeles and New York. Jesse Eisenberg is the Woody persona this time around, a neurotic New York Jewish kid named Bobby, who makes his way out to Hollywood in the late 1930s to land a job working for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a successful talent agent quick to drop a big name at club or café or dinner or cocktail party. While getting his feet wet, Bobby falls for Uncle Phil's secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and makes friend with a married couple of socialites played by "late Woody" regular Parker Posey and Paul Schneider.
Back in New York, Bobby's gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a guy who sits at the dinner table counting his extorted thousands while Mom (the brilliant Jeannie Berlin) and Pop (Ken Stott, also brilliant) turn a blind eye in grand fashion, is making his way into the nightclub business. When he succeeds, of course, this prompts Bobby back into a New York state of mind. But Vonnie can't bring herself to leave LA.
Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is the big hire for Woody here. His work is exquisite, stylish, cool, the frame gorgeously painted with the sun and glitz of California and the chandelier elegance of New York's high life. The costumes and production design likewise match Woody's vision here. It begs to be seen on a big screen, unlike last year's effort from Woody, Irrational Man, a much much darker comedy that is also worth seeing.
Not everything works. I pause with a bit of disappointment in the casting of Steve Carell. He just isn't really believable as a Hollywood suit of this era, at least in my mind, and the appeal his Uncle Phil is supposed to have doesn't come through.
Much of the humor, of course, comes from Woody's dialogue. He's still got it. Great one-liners that poke fun at everything from Italian-American cuisine to Judaism itself, sometimes even together, "I grew up Jewish, so my Mom always burned the meatballs. She had to make sure she killed all the germs." Plenty of that sort. Plenty of laughs in the screening I attended.
Café Society is not great Woody in any "period" of his filmography, but I wouldn't call it minor Woody either. Or maybe I should just stop trying to categorize and be thankful that one of my favorite filmmakers keeps banging out movies at 80 years old. There's not much to say other than it's simply an easy and enjoyable comedy, well-worth watching, and, as this is the work of an 80 year old master, I don't think we should ask for much more. After all, witty romantic comedies are sort of his thing. Right? Or at least one of his things. Right? And this is easily his best movie since Midnight in Paris.
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, and Corey Stoll
★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★