CAFE SOCIETY (USA 2016) ***1/2
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll
Review by Gilbert Seah
In Woody Allen’s new romantic comedy, Allen transforms into Humphrey Bogart through Jesse Eisenberg. The famous CASABLANCA story is retold, Allen style with the hero falling in love with two women but giving his first love up as Bogart gave up his love for Ingrid Bergman in the famous closing scene.
CAFE SOCIETY is Allen’s tribute to old Hollywood, its people and its glamour. The tribute takes the form of the coming-of-rites passage story of young Jewish NYC boy, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg). Bobby leaves his family in NYC hoping to find a new life in Hollywood with the help of his successful Uncle Phill (Steve Carrell) – the hottest talent agent around. In the process he falls in love with his Uncle Phill’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) who is having an affair with Phill. Vonnie finally decides to marry Phill (the older gent always gets the younger girl in Woody’s films, e.g. MANHATTAN and in his real life). Bobby discovers he prefers NYC and returns home, eventually settling down by looking after his gangster uncle Ben’s (Corey Stoll) nightclub. He falls in love and marries Veronica (Blake Lively). An unexpected visit from Phill and wife Vonnie stirs up memories just as Ingrid Bergman’s visit to Bogart’s nightclub in Casablanca did.
CAFE SOCIETY is not the best of Allen’s films but it is not without its delights. For the especially Allen fan, there is much to enjoy in terms of film references. For one, this is Allen’s second tribute to Bogart after his play and film PLAY IT AGIAN, SAM. Allen gets to narrate his own film, putting a good perspective of where everything is going. He is s too old to star in his films and he knows it. Eisenberg makes a new younger Allen, complete in diminutive stature, manners and outfits.
Bobby’s belted baggy Khaki pleats are similar to those often worn by Allen in his films like ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN. In one scene where Eisenberg says, “I am opening a bottle of wine to let it breathe,” he even sounds like Allen. Though CAFE SOCIETY is less subtle at times, for example in the use of the melody of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” during the last meeting between Bobby and Vonnie, CAFE SOCIETY still succeeds as one of Allen’s romantic comedies.
Allen attracts the best cinematographers like Oscar winners Gordon Willis Jr. and Janusz Kaminski. CAFE SOCIETY is beautifully shot by 3-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro (THE LAST EMPEROR, REDS, APOCALYPSE NOW) as evident in the ceiling view of a New Year’s party and in all the exterior shot segments.
CAFE SOCIETY is Allen in comedy mode though the humour is less manic or absurdist but more subtle, more profound. Some examples include a Hollywood writer introducing himself to Bobby at a party: “You have never heard of me, I am a writer”, or “Timing is everything in life!” But the key quote of the film is Allen’s description on life: “Life is comedy but written by a sadistic comedy writer.” The film’s funniest line is as in his other films, one that pokes fun at being Jewish. Bobby: “I’m a bit drunk. I don’t usually mix champagne with bagels and lox.” Yes, if everything else fails in Allen’s film (which doesn’t here), there is always his humour.
CAFE SOCIETY, though not Allen’s best, still comes with high recommendations.