Woody Allen celebrates his romantic side in Café Society, a welcome diversion from the summer’s sequels and reboots. While not the best of Woody’s recent films, this cinema confection feels like a dip in a swimming pool compared to the overheated offerings in local theaters. And, though it will be forgotten by Oscar night, the film offers more than enough entertainment to fill a summer evening.
As this prolific filmmaker demonstrated in Bullets Over Broadway and Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen loves to play with period pieces. This time he lovingly recreates Hollywood and New York in the 1930s complete with stylized sets, lavish costumes and classic tunes on the soundtrack. The film, in fact, looks and sounds so good that we quickly travel back in time to the fictional days when movie big shots partied till dawn, gossiped behind each other’s back, and played romantic games on and off the screen. It’s all great fun, Woody style.
Inside this detailed fantasy world, Woody imagines a marvelous romance between two lonely souls, a young man from New York who travels to Hollywood to find fame and fortune and a young woman who journeys to Tinseltown only to find herself involved with a married man. In a situation somewhat reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment, Woody uses the romantic complications to paint a picture of a synthetic world where real feelings become secondary to reel relationships. Like Wilder, Woody disguises his cynical views of conventional romance with a stroke of his movie paint brush, developing a clever narrative filled with reliable one liners. As if to remind us that he still has a precise sense of humor, Woody handles the voice-over narration himself. And it’s classic Woody.
Director Woody benefits from a cast that fits well into the rhythm of his words. Jesse Eisenberg — in his second movie for the filmmaker — brings just the right mix of innocence and passion to recreate Woody’s persona of a man who lets intelligence restrict his ability to connect. By delicately showing how someone can overthink sensitive situations Eisenberg makes us believe in the man without letting the man overwhelm the lightness of the piece. Likewise, Kristin Stewart — so magical last year in Clouds of Sils Maria — proves a delightful comedienne as a woman whose romantic priorities have short memories. Legendary comic Jeannie Berlin makes a wonderful appearance as a mother who only wants to believe the best about her sons and Steve Carell brings his patented timing to the broad role of Eisenberg’s fast-talking uncle. In the spirit of Bullets Over Broadway, Woody surrounds his central relationships with rich supporting characters (including a devilish Parker Posey), visits with mobsters and moments of real connection.
By this time, Woody Allen has made so many movies that it’s difficult – even for someone so creative – to continually create something new. (And, when it happens, as with Blue Jasmine in 2013, the results are wonderful.) Whether or not Café Society is the most original of Allen’s films overlooks how well the piece works. Even when it feels like something we have seen before, we are so entertained we don’t care. After this summer at the movies it doesn’t take much for a movie to feel fresh.
- Content: High. While Woody Allen may borrow from his own library of comic complications, the movie feels fresher than it may actually be simply because no one can cook comedy like Woody.
- Entertainment: High. Thanks to Woody’s sharp writing, a lavish looking production and a strong cast, Café Society offers welcome relief from the summer heat, sequels and reboots.
- Message: Medium. There’s not much substance in this cinema confection but that’s not usually what we expect from Woody Allen.
- Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to take time from the summer routine to enjoy a fun movie is always relevant.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. While you won’t likely find yourself repeating Woody’s one liners, you will leave the theater smiling from ear to ear.
(Café Society runs 96 minutes. It is rated PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking.)
Reel Dad Rating: Four Popcorn Buckets
How Woody Allen Loves Movies
The delights of Café Society remind us how much magic we expect every time Woody Allen makes a movie. And while the new film offers a fun time at the cinema, it falls short of finding a place in Woody’s hall of fame. Here are some of my favorite moments from Woody’s six decades at the movies.
The Ultimate Airplane Conversation, Blue Jasmine (2012)
In a brilliant prologue that sets the tone for the film and defines its central character, Woody simply lets us listen to Cate Blanchett go on and on and on about her life as if the world is curious about the details. Five minutes into the film we know we have front row seats for a fascinating examination of the roots and layers of narcissism. And we love every moment that Blanchett makes us dislike a most unbelievable woman.
Thanksgiving dinner, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Woody’s tribute to the highs and lows of family togetherness brims with love as this extended (and exaggerated) clan gathers to celebrate their favorite holiday. We can practically smell the turkey and dressing as Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine bring depth to this touching tale of what people mean to each other and refuse to admit. The lovely Maureen O’Sullivan – Farrow’s mother – is marvelous as, what else, the matriarch.
Lobsters in the Kitchen, Annie Hall (1977)
In what may be his most personal film, Woody recreates his romance with Diane Keaton playing opposite, who else, Diane Keaton! In what may be the most spontaneous moment in a Woody film, the two romantics struggle over getting a live lobster into boiling water. Together they make us want this offbeat relationship to work even as they show us why the couple doesn’t stand a chance.
Stepping Off the Screen, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
This loving tribute to the magic of movies takes a fun look at what can happen when we let our belief in the reel world reach into our real lives. Mia Farrow celebrates her role as Woody’s favorite actress by making this ever-so-shy woman so ultimately believable that we want her to find the romance she craves. And when Jeff Daniels steps into her world, we take a leap of faith that some dreams can come true.
Taking a Walk, Manhattan (1979)
Woody lets his love for New York City shine in many of his films, never so beautifully as in this brittle comedy about upper class cynics searching for love. Woody and Diane Keaton – in roles that are miles away from Annie Hall – spar on the streets as she goes on and on about the joys of life in Woody’s favorite city. And the director visually captures the beauty of the city as no one has, before or after.
A Flying Goldie, Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
A Woody Allen musical? Yes! And a good one! Though Woody, himself, is not a singer, he bravely tunes his pipes for this delightful look at an eccentric extended famly in Manhattan. Woody has great fun directing his cast – including Edward Norton, Alan Alda and Julia Roberts – to break into song. And he tops it all with a wondrous sequence on the Seine in Paris where, yes, Goldie Hawn takes to the air. This little known film is a total delight.
“Don’t Speak”, Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
The ever-so-grand Dianne Wiest – who won her first Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters – won her second for her brilliant rendition of show business ego in the form of an aging and manipulative diva. Simply watching Wiest to prepare to utter her famous two-word command – using every octave in her vocal range – creates pure screen comedy. She and the movie create a pitch perfect look at a New York that may never have actually existed.
As we savor Café Society, these classic moments remind us how good Woody can be and how much we love his films even those that do not create lasting memories.
See you at the movies.