(This film review of “Cafe Society” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 October 2016.)
Directed and written by Woody Allen; starring Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll and Ken Stott
As a master Jewish film-maker, Woody Allen is without peer in the history of film. During the course of almost 60 films over more than 50 years, he has established numerous iconic Jewish characters and explored issues ranging from antisemitism to Jewish mothers and sons to Jews in show business to the Holocaust.
Despite numerous Academy Award nominations, Allen has not maintained the impact that he once had with some of his early hits like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”, films that implanted themselves in the collective subconscious of film-goers.
Allen’s latest film, “Cafe Society”, is set in 1930s New York and Los Angeles, and doesn’t break new ground, but minute by minute it is one of the funniest Jewish comedies in many years. Most major characters in this film are Jewish, and being Jewish for them is a big deal, in their interactions with each other and with non-Jews.
The plot of “Cafe Society” revolves around Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who is arrives in California seeking help from his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a successful Hollywood agent (big house, non-Jewish blond wife) who consistently pretends to be more important than he is. Bobby starts to work for Phil, and soon falls in love with Phil’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who it turns out (not much plot giveaway here) is having an affair with Phil.
The action later switches to New York, where a now-older Bobby manages a nightclub for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), the first Jewish crime figure we have seen on screen in a while. As the young Bobby, Eisenberg channels Woody Allen in almost embarrassing ways, sounding so much like the young Allen that it’s creepy. But as Eisenberg’s character gets older, those expressions fade and are replaced by a more solid, albeit naive and desperately earnest demeanour. The plot loops slowly and gently, generally satisfying, but without great impact. The delight here is in the telling, with the carefully drawn characters and lots of cute references to classic Hollywood films and actors.
Eisenberg has many of the film’s most delightful lines, including a hilarious conversation with a young woman (Blake Lively) where, within a few quick minutes, the dialogue successfully mentions just about every antisemitic stereotype imaginable. In one of the film’s first conversations, one agent says how he “found Paul Muni” (a graduate of Yiddish theatre and one of the most prestigious actors of the pre-war period). Allen includes one of his favourite scenes, a family seder (think “Crimes and Misdemeanors”) where all present get to chip in on a discussion about modern Jewish life. Characters also frequently curse in Yiddish.
“Cafe Society” looks beautiful on the screen – it’s shot by three-time Oscar-winning Italian cinematographer Vittario Storaro, although it does contain many classic Woody Allen themes, including an obsession with browns and yellows, and a cleanliness of locations that surely could not have been true at the time. But in Woody Allen’s mind, that’s what life was like then.
The casting depth in “Cafe Society” is also delightful; Allen writes great characters and actors love playing them. One highlight is the casting of Jeannie Berlin as Bobby’s mother Rose, adding a new twist to the long list of powerful Jewish mothers on screen. Berlin has a long history of playing Jewish characters, notably co-starring in “The Heartbreak Kid” (the 1972 original directed by her mother Elaine May, not the Ben Stiller re-make) as Charles Grodin’s spurned Jewish wife. Other neat minor roles include British actor Ken Stott as Bobby’s father, inhabiting his meek Jewish father role with relish; Parker Posey as a sharp-tongued modelling agency owner; and the oh-so-precious interactions between Sari Lennick (Bobby’s sister Evelyn) and her intellectual Jewish husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken).