Café Society Cannes review: the brand new old thing

Woody Allen’s new film for Amazon welds together his typical party pieces, with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart playing with charm

Cafe Society
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Director: Woody Allen
Cert: Club
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Jess Eisenberg
Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins

The first thing that attendees of this year's Cannes Festival saw on the screen was a logo for Amazon Studios. This marks a new adventure for the event and a fresh experiment for Woody Allen.

Then things continued pretty much as they have done for the last 40 years. White Windsor Light Condensed typeface tells that we are about to watch Café Society. A nostalgic light comedy progresses that features romance between a 50-year-old man and a woman half his age. There's a lot of jazz about the place.

Is that quite fair? The man who famously distrusts Los Angeles here offers us a love letter to that city, inscribed in almost absurdly golden hues by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Of course this is LA of the 1930s and Allen still focuses on a character who can't shake Manhattan from his homesick head.

The latest man to take on the role of Woody Allen Stand-In (Wasi) - following on from the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Owen Wilson and John Cusack - is the incomparably well-qualified Jesse Eisenberg. The young actor plays Bobby, a New Yorker, born to the sort of Jewish family we remember from Radio Days, who is dispatched to Hollywood to work for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell).


The older man is an agent who can barely draw breath without attracting the attention of Dick Powell or Irene Dunn. He asks Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), his secretary, to show the rube about the city. Inevitably, Bobby falls in love with her but (equally inevitably, alas) it transpires she is having an affair with his uncle.

There really isn’t much new here, but Allen - who narrates in a cracked voice -- plays the old tunes with greater assurance than in most recent projects. Often hammering his scripts out more rapidly than is decent, he looks to have welded two story ideas together into one moderately pleasing whole. The LA story wallows in romance. The New York tale counterbalances with roustabout ethnic mayhem.

Stewart and Eisenberg play well off one another. He is just that bit more unstable than most earlier Wasis. Stewart is endlessly charming as a girl who is clearly clever enough to know better.

Surprisingly, what the piece lacks most of all are properly structured jokes. Café Society is forever on the point of delivering a cracking punch line, but too often muffs it with a deflating dud. Still, the third Woody Allen film to open Cannes (the fourth if you include the compendium New York Stories) kicks things off with considerable élan.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist