Early on in Café Society, Woody Allen’s 47th film, Jesse Eisenberg’s character meekly hires a prostitute. It’s his first such transaction, and he’s edgy. When she finally arrives, he’s gone off the idea. Eventually it transpires it’s her first outing too. Neither of them know what to do, and instead awkwardly bicker. At this point, you’re either chuckling “Classic Woody,” or you’re groaning into an astronomical eye-roll.
The simple farcical charms of late-stage Woody Allen are here redeveloped, as with Midnight in Paris, into something with more feeling than the auteur’s lesser excursions. It’s not perfect – if last year’s Irrational Man was too consciously dark and philosophical (Crimes and Misdemeanors-lite), this ’30s-set Hollywood story is perhaps too consciously nostalgic and sugary (Radio Days-lite) – but for 90 minutes, you get roughly 15 vintage one-liners and the expected surfeit of fine, invested acting.
Stewart in particular is, as always now, the best thing on screen, but Eisenberg is a close second. Carell, meanwhile, shifts from brusque to vulnerable and right around to slimy without once losing grip on his character. If Allen’s writing proves divisive, one can always bet on his surehanded direction.
Speaking of which: if nothing else this is easily his most beautiful film since 1980’s Stardust Memories. Forget the usual Allen-accompanying platitudes of “His best since Blue Jasmine/Midnight in Paris/the ‘90s!” – this is, without caveats, one of the most gorgeously shot films of 2016, proving the legendary DP Vittorio Storaro still has his own sleevebound tricks.
A meandering second half outstays its welcome, but every line and frame of this straightforward, sometimes caustic human romance is saturated in the best of late Woody: Hollywood, Manhattan, wisecracks, gangsters, glamour, a perfect ending… and two uses of the word “cockamamie”. Effortlessly well-made cinematic comfort food at its warmest.
CAST: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott, Jeannie Berlin, Woody Allen
DIRECTOR: Woody Allen
WRITER: Woody Allen
SYNOPSIS: In the 1930s, a young Bronx native (Eisenberg) moves to Hollywood where he falls in love with the secretary (Stewart) of his powerful uncle (Carell), an agent to the stars. After returning to New York, he is swept up in the vibrant world of high society nightclub life.