Woody Allen’s 47th film, Cafe Society, which opens in Canada on July 29, is a valentine to the bittersweet nature of love and romance and a barb about Hollywood glamour.
A workmanlike movie narrated by Allen and infused with the velvety sounds of pre-war jazz, it’s set in the late 1930s as a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), goes West to escape his bickering parents.
He pins his hopes on his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a high-powered agent and name dropper who’s less than eager to help him. As Bobby cools his heels in a second-rate hotel, waiting to be summoned by Stern, he grows disillusioned with Hollywood. “It’s sunny and warm, but it’s not New York,” he tells his parents in an expensive long-distance call.
Fighting off loneliness and boredom, he avails himself of the services of a blonde Jewish hooker, who had hoped to be an actress. It’s an amusing scene, an appetizer preceding the main course.
When, at last, Bobby is called into Stern’s fancy office, he’s continually interrupted by incoming telephone calls. Stern, played convincingly by Carell, enjoys the latest industry gossip: Adolph Menjou is threatening to walk off the set of his latest picture. Joel McCrea would be perfect as the lead in his next film. These names, synonymous with Hollywood’s golden era, lend Cafe Society context and authenticity.
Stern has no job to offer Bobby, plausibly portrayed by Eisenberg. But after he begs for even a morsel, Stern throws him a crumb and instructs his beautiful secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show him around town. Driving through the Hollywood Hills, Vonnie shows him the homes of the stars. Bobby, however, is more interested in Vonnie than in gated mansions. Vonnie likes Bobby, but she has a boyfriend.
Stern invites Bobby to one of his house parties, giving him a chance to meet new people. Bobby meets a friendly couple. He also overhears a comment that speaks to the notion of upward mobility in Hollywood: “I don’t care how many men she sleeps with, she’ll never get the part.”
Much to Bobby’s surprise, Vonnie suddenly turns up again in his life. As his relationship with her flourishes, he asks Vonnie to return to New York City with him. He thinks Hollywood is boring and nasty, with its dog-eat-dog values.
Vonnie, played to perfection by Stewart, seems ready to leave. But fate intervenes and Bobby is left in the lurch.
Returning to New York, he takes a job at a fancy night club frequented by mobsters and the creme-de-la-creme of the Big Apple. The club is owned by his older brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a gangster who’s quick to dispose of enemies, and who turns to Christianity when his days are numbered.
Bobby meets Veronica (Blake Lively), an attractive divorce from Oklahoma. As she candidly admits, Bobby is the first Jewish man she has ever met. When Bobby becomes too aggressive in his courting techniques, Veronica resorts to an antisemitic stereotype. “It’s true, you people are pushy,” she says.
This is not the first, nor the last, reference to Jews. Cafe Society bubbles over with such references.
When Vonnie shows up at the club one night, Bobby is cold and aloof. But he soon discovers he still has a crush on Vonnie, who shares his feelings.
Can they resurrect their old romance? Should they? Cafe Society lets that question dangle seductively.