Like the Cannes Film Festival, a new Woody Allen film is not an unexpected surprise — it’s an annual certainty. We don’t ask ourselves if Woody’s going to drop another film, and we don’t wonder when next year’s Cannes Film Festival will be. Rain or shine, hell or high-water, it’s a-coming, and its been that way for decades already. As a result, we don’t judge each edition wholly on its merits, but against a storied history. What does that mean for “Café Society,” then? Well, it means that it’s a perfectly enjoyable, perfectly forgettable nostalgi-comedy that will be taken to task for not being anything more.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Bobby Dorfman, an outer-borough expat trying to make his name in 1930s Hollywood. Working for powerful Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), Bobby is less taken by the screen trade than he is with Phil’s young mistress, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Meanwhile, his brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is expanding his gangland empire in New York and trying to lure Bobby home.
As neurotic Bobby — torn between New York and Los Angeles, torn between a blonde and a brunette — Jesse Eisenberg channels Woody. And the story about Jewish gangsters, intellectuals and showbiz machers feels like Woody channeling Woody.
The film’s showbiz-in-the-Golden Age focus will get people talking about “Radio Days.” The gangsters and nightclubs feel a lot like “Bullets Over Broadway.” And Lord knows the novel-like structure and shared narrators will yield countless unfavorable comparisons to “Hannah and Her Sisters” (to be fair, most films can be unfavorably compared to that masterpiece).
But does that change Allen’s killer wit? Does it make the comic barbs and inspired set-pieces in “Café Society” any less effective? If the waves of laughter at this morning’s press screening are any indications, the answer is perfectly clear. Let’s not forget: However narrow his range may be, Woody Allen is great at what he does.
In that, he’s not alone. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“The Conformist,” “Apocalypse Now”), no less a titan of modern cinema than Allen, shoots digitally for the first time, and works visual wonders. Storaro bathes the screen in glowing light, shooting silhouettes and candlelight in ways that are nothing short of breathtaking. But then, he’s Vittorio Storaro, what else should you expect?
And as Vonnie, Kristen Stewart once again proves why she’s such an interesting actress. Stewart doesn’t completely upend her range — she’s still kind of glum, a bit subdued — but she digs deeper into it, finding new shades in that K-Stew pout. She doesn’t change her style, she owns it.
And that’s “Café Society” in a nutshell: a bunch of artists doing what they do. Owning it. They’ve done it better, sure. They’ve done before, absolutely. But dammit if they don’t do it well.
That very rote-ness is what makes the film such an effective opener. To those looking for something startling or inventive, it gently reminds you: Cannes 2016 has only just begun.