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Did “Cafe Society” Give Me a Woody?

July 15, 2016

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For 25 years, I’ve had a tradition of seeing Woody Allen movies on opening day at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — the heart of Woody Allen country. It’s the only theater I’ve ever seen that sells smoked salmon sandwiches on rye, and lets you spread your own shmear. Sometimes (To Rome with Love, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), the sandwich is the highlight of the occasion. Other times (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Sweet and Lowdown), it’s the ideal combination of movie and snack. At least the lox never disappoints.

Neither does Woody’s latest movie, Cafe Society, I’m pleased to report. It’s more Blue Jasmine than Irrational Man. Jesse Eisenberg, who makes a much better Woody stand-in here than he did in Rome, stars as a straight-outta-the-Bronx 1930s boy who heads to Hollywood looking for work. He hits up his uncle (a stellar Steve Carell), a powerful agent, and promptly falls for his secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart, who grew on me). A romantic triangle ensues, and the film plays out as a sophisticated dramedy of manners.

Classic Woody themes — some might say obsessions — emerge: the superiority of New York City over Los Angeles, May-December romances, Judaism vs. Christianity, the emptiness of showbiz. But they’re given a new sheen thanks to Vittorio Storaro’s sleek cinematography and Santo Loquasto’s lavish production design, and Woody’s use of Swing Era jazz has rarely been so well-suited to his story.

The damn-near-flawless ensemble includes Jeannie Berlin (who’s also outstanding on HBO’s new limited series The Night Of) as Eisenberg’s lovably kvetching mother, Corey Stoll (whose Hemingway was the best thing about the overrated Midnight in Paris) as his gangster brother, and great Scot Ken Stott as his long-suffering dad. Even Blake Lively acquits herself well in a relatively minor role late in the film.

Is Cafe Society one of Woody Allen’s all-time greatest films? Nope, it’s second-tier, but it’s still a refreshingly civilized and solid movie for grownups in a summer laden with letdowns like Ghostbusters and The Infiltrator. As Woody says, the heart wants what it wants, and sometimes mine just wants a good old-fashioned movie movie and a smoked salmon sammie.

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