True to the “post-‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ law” that every third film’s a winner, Woody Allen rings the bell (after the stinkers “Irrational Man” and “Magic in the Moonlight”) with “Café Society,” a nostalgic nod to growing up a Jew in New York City and the dawn of the Hollywood studio era. It’s a return to the director’s roots and a clear bit of personal therapy. At the core, however, burns idealism, longing and the modulation of one’s own personal views over time.
Our protagonist, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), an impassioned nebbish from the Bronx with dreams of grandeur, possesses the right seeding of an Allen alter-ego. Given he’s a young man living in a cramped post-Depression apartment with a yenta-lite mom (an excellent Jeannie Berlin), Bobby heads to Tinseltown, where Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is an agent to the stars and hobnobs with the likes of Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers and Errol Flynn. We never meet any of these icons like we did in “Midnight in Paris,” but Phil talks to them often on the telephone as Bobby sits longingly across from him in Phil’s big office, hoping his mother’s brother will toss him a bone and give him a job.
Being extremely in demand but obliged to family, Phil asks his assistant Vonnie (Kristin Stewart) to show Bobby around. The first thing the two do is tool around town and gaze at the stars’ mansions – namely Joan Crawford’s – and it’s quickly obvious that Bobby, who’s just recently notched an awkward experience with a Jewish call girl and is clearly not skilled with women, is smitten. Problem is, Vonnie’s already spoken for by a man of stature who, for all his admirable reputation, isn’t around much. As this is heartless Hollywood, it doesn’t take long for revelations and complications to upend the applecart and send Bobby back in New York. Eventually he regains his footing by running a nightclub with his brother Benny (Corey Stoll), a feared gangster with a warm demeanor. In short, Benny’s a lethal blend, smart, loyal and a master at strong-arm tactics. The irony here is that Stoll recently played a straight-laced prosecutor who helps take down Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass.” It’s also a stroke of casting genius, as whenever Stoll (as with Berlin) is on the screen, the radiance of the film shines that much brighter. Continue reading