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Café Society

6/10

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey

Director: Woody Allen

After film after film after film I can’t pretend to have been particularly enthusiastic at the prospect of seeing Woody Allen’s latest annual ego trip.

I was wrong.

I found Café Society to be one of his most enjoyable films in ages. Not as pretentious as Blue Jasmine and by no means as dreadful as the BBC-funded flop Scoop (released by Kurdish DVD pirates in London’s Holloway Road.

Instead Woody’s tale of young Jewish New Yorker Jesse Eisenberg who comes to Hollywood in the 1930s and later returns to his native Manhattan to become a mover and shaker in the eponymous Café Society, boasts some witty dialogue that recalls his heyday and is genuinely funny – as well as featuring some tougher material.

The tougher aspects involve gangsters, one of them Eisenberg’s brother Ben, well played by Corey Stoll.

Actually I found Café Society to be essentially two separate – and each entertaining - stories, a Hollywood satire and a darker Big Apple gangster melodrama, linked by Eisenberg.

Eisenberg heads for Hollywood where he asks his top agent uncle Steve Carell, a ruthless hustler who drops more names than a newspaper gossip columnist, for a job and ends up telling anyone who wants to know, “Menial errands are my specialty”.

After a close encounter of the unfulfilled kind with a prostitute (“Jewish hooker. That’s a first!”), Eisenberg finds true love with Carell’s secretary Kristen Wiig, enjoys Hollywood at its lavish best, attending a private screening in a bigwig’s home and star-laden Beverly Hills parties including one where Carell, asked where Greta Garbo is, replies “She’s alone, somewhere”.

Allen sends up Hollywood’s Golden Age with wit and genuine affection, well complemented by Vittorio Storaro’s rich, period-style color cinematography and well-used Los Angeles locations before switching back to New York when Eisenberg, having been rejected by Wiig in favour of his uncle, goes to work for his gangster brother Stoll and becomes a major member of the café society running Stoll’s posh New York nightery (“We Jews control everything") and, appropriately, appropriate mover and shaker…

Then, after his sister’s innocent actions end up in her family hoods murdering an irritating neighbour, the story takes a still darker tone…

Eisenberg makes the most of his innocence-corrupted role but never quite ages, Stoll makes a suitable cinematic hoodlum but, for my money, the acting laurels belong firmly to Carell, whose accomplished lack of charm works wonders in creating a memorable movie monster who gives the impression that, given his usual percentage as an agent, he would demand the rest of the one hundred per cent fee as a “thank you”.

In effect, Allen neatly sums up his film with Eisenberg’s disillusioned line “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer”.

Café Society may not match up to vintage Allen but it’s still a major improvement in his film-a-a-year output.

Alan Frank

USA 2016. UK Distributor: Warner. Colour by deluxe.
96 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 1, Swearing 1.

Review date: 31 Aug 2016