In 1930s Hollywood, Phil Stern (Steve Carrell) is a high profile film agent. His nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is a neurotic New Yorker who moves to Los Angeles after becoming tired of life in the Big Apple. The extended family also includes a gangster (Corey Stoll) and a Communist intellectual (Stephen Kunken).
The film is, in essence, a wandering tale of cinephilia, writer-director Woody Allen exercising his vast knowledge of classic Hollywood whenever possible. It is also a romantic melodrama: Bobby wants a woman named Veronica (Kristen Stewart) who is with a married man who just so happens to be Bobby’s uncle. This said, it is very melodramatic. The dramatic irony that comes out of it is playful, which accounts for something, but at times the film is burdened by a script chock full of insecure bickerings.
Allen’s form—mise en scene, lighting and color, transitions, score—is hyper-cinematic, as if the film is itself an early color flick. It is a fitting aesthetic that is appealing, even if the sepia tones are over-utilized.
Acting-wise, Eisenberg does a good job leading the pack, although he is essentially doing a subdued Woody Allen impression. Stewart comes off awkward across from him, but Blake Lively makes for a better on-screen counterpart later in the film. Carrell, too, has a notable performance as a slimy but insecure Hollywood big shot.
Though it hinges on melodrama, Cafe Society still finds time to be compelling in its twisting tale of adultery that is somehow innocent in spite of its deceitful characters. It might be a stretch to call it a compelling romantic melodrama outright—it is a middling Allen film—but its aesthetic and wit is certainly enough to chew on for 96 minutes.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)