Film review – Café Society (Woody Allen, 2016)

There is a moment in Café Society where the magic of 1950s Hollywood romance is really captured: a chance glance, an excited exchange, the promise of unfolding romance recognised instantly. That this exquisite one-shot involves not Kristen Stewart – the woman we need to believe is Jesse Eisenberg’s raison d’etre – but rather Blake Lively, reveals everything we need to know about why this Woody Allen effort fails to hit the heights of his more recent successes. That is, Kristen Stewart simply isn’t a believable love interest. At least not in this kind of film.

The 1930s-set story centres around Bobby (Eisenberg), a young Jewish man who has moved to Hollywood to pursue new career opportunities under the supervision of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful and well-connected film talent agent. He instantly falls in love with Veronica (Stewart), an assistant at Phil’s office,  unaware of the fact that his uncle is on the verge of breaking off his marriage to pursue his affair with Veronica.

The film hangs together on Jesse Eisenberg’s shoulders, as he starts off by doing his best Woody Allen impression and progresses towards his final position that is ever-so-slightly more alpha male than that. It is genuinely an excellent performance, bringing energy to the screen whenever he graces it.

He works best playing off against the plethora of supporting characters who never fail to exude the feel of the time and he’s clearly having fun under the supervision of one of the greatest living film directors. It’s a beautiful homage to the heyday of Hollywood, as Bobby develops into a socialite, bouncing from party to party first in Hollywood and then later on his return to New York.

Whenever Stewart appears on screen, she feels like a woman out of place in the era and unable to match the authentic performances of those around her. This goes against some excellent post-Twilight performances that have given her a route out of potential typecasting (American Ultra is a great example of this), but a classic Hollywood leading starlet she is not.

The film is not a complete failure. A hilariously delivered exchange between Bobby and a first-time prostitute is just one example of the smart comedic dialogue we’ve come to expect in Allen’s recent film. The jazz-centric score heightens the positioning in the era.

It’s just a shame that I was routing for he wrong girl.

Cafe Society is available now on DVD, along with the sumptuous Vince Giordano soundtrack.

American Ultra (Nima Nourizadeh, 2015)

American Ultra is far better than it should have been. The basic story – a stoner grocery store assistant (Jesse Eisenberg) is actually an advanced agent from a secret programme that was shut down before his memory was wiped – sounds like pretty standard fare and doesn’t really suggest a great film is in order. A fast pace, short running time and well-judged performances make it an enjoyable romp.

Eisenberg is well cast and it’s a wise move to keep him in reluctant stoner character throughout, though it would have been easier to make him magically turn into an alpha male. Kristen Stewart makes another case for the ATL (Anti Twilight League) to take her a little more seriously with a solid performance and there are great turns elsewhere from Bill “Was That Bill Pullman?” Pullman, Topher “That 70s Guy” Grace, John “Luigi Mario” Leguizamo and Tony “Loose Seal” Hale.Perhaps this film doesn’t justify a trip to the cinema, but when it hits the steaming platforms it should be near the top of your list.

American Ultra is out now at cinemas in the UK.