62. Café Society

Blake Lively is back!  Hooray!

Okay, so I would have seen Café Society, anyway.  I’ve become a fan of Woody Allen’s recent films and try to catch each one he releases.  I tend to really enjoy them – especially if Allen’s not acting.  Annie Hall was enough Allen acting for me.  Thankfully, he rarely does so, these days, and Café Society doesn’t deviate from that trend (he does narrate, but I’m okay with that).

And I truly did become a Blake Lively fan following her turn in The Shallows.  So while I would have made a point of catching Café Society, regardless, Lively is the reason I was so excited for it.  More on her and the cast in just a second.

Firstly, Café Society is pure Woody Allen in all his glory.  As is normally the case, this film would be instantly recognizable as a Woody film even if one wasn’t aware ahead of time that he wrote and directed it.  Every scene is propelled at a rapid pace with his trademark dialogue.  Sharp, witty, and punctuating as ever, conversations whiz by in a flurry of characterization, exposition, and zippy one-liners that those asleep at the wheel will likely (and unfortunately) miss.  Woody has always lived and died by his dialogue (only Tarantino stands toe-to-toe with him) and Café Society easily – even casually – lives up to his own lofty standards.  Seriously, who else but Woody could craft a scene involving a prostitute in such a way that it’s funny, touching, and even charming?

Without getting into too much detail, the narrative treads a lot of personal ground for Woody, addressing various types of relationships that, without knowing the particulars, society would deem inappropriate.  But this isn’t regular society; this is café society, which – for all of its bad reputation – is much more liberal and accepting, even in 1939.  Anyone familiar with the press surrounding Woody’s personal life (which is most everyone) knows that he has struggled with public perception due to his own love life and here he attempts to show the other side of love that those on the outside rarely seem to take into consideration.  It’s a fearless film that’s completely sure of itself and that just helps to further get its point across.

The aforementioned cast is a rather surprising one for a Woody Allen film.  He branches out and chooses less conventional stars than one would expect to see in a film that’s concerned with being taken seriously in the more artistic circles of the industry.  But, as I said, Woody and the film are confident and it works.  Jesse Eisenberg breaks away from his standard typecasting and plays Bobby, a young man simply in search of a life for himself.  He finds it with the help of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and down-to-earth socialite Veronica (Lively).

Lively is the least outside-the-box for a Woody Allen film and it’s no wonder, as she absolutely glows.  Her Veronica exudes charm and simply mesmerizes with every spoken word.  I hope she’s in every movie for the rest of all time.  Enough said.

Eisenberg continues to display his growth and maturity and has a pretty easy time portraying the Everyman who’s decided to play in a different sandbox than he’s used to.  He’s relatable, likable, and endearing, even when he makes the same love-driven, boneheaded mistakes that we’ve all made in our lives.

Phil Stern couldn’t have been better cast as Steve Carell navigates a complex maze of a money-grubbing talent agent who so desperately yearns for love and acceptance . . . but only among the elite.  Stern seems unaware that his seemingly innocent desires are fueled by selfishness related to his social status.  Carell carves his performance out of avarice, using emptiness as his scalpel.

And lastly (among the principals) we have Kristen Stewart, the most disarming of Woody’s casting choices.  Look, it’s easy and lazy to lambaste her for Twilight, as so many do, to this day.  And, yes, Twilight was genuinely awful but, objectively speaking, Stewart was among the least of its problems.  The fact is, in Café Society, I was impressed by many of her choices and subtleties.  She gives an appropriately restrained performance, playing Vonnie, the girl with ambitious dreams and little drive.  Vonnie has true feeling and empathy but these aren’t her motivating characteristics.  In response, Stewart allows her emotions to constantly brush the surface but never to take over.  I still feel like Stewart lacks a certain charisma and I have a hard time understanding why others are so passionately enthralled by Vonnie in the film, but I can agree to chalk that up to different tastes and subjectivity.  Regardless, Stewart gives a nice, delicate performance that her uninsightful “haterz” will refuse to acknowledge.

What all this adds up to is another great film from Woody Allen.  He’s about as reliable a filmmaker as we have and I look forward to revisiting Café Society upon its blu-ray release.  If you’re looking for something sweet, swift, and grown-up, you absolutely can’t go wrong with Café Society.

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