Written by Zornitsa Staneva
Nothing more Hollywoody to officially kick off the Cannes 2016 Festival than Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy starring Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, with a hilarious supporting role by Steve Carell. Today’s buzz at the festival is a more or less positive reception for what is a very watchable, light entertainment piece.
Romantic comedy is Woody Allen’s shtick these days, alternating between postcard locations in Europe and the USA and this time we get a double dose of the latter – switching between Hollywood and New York as Bobby, a fumbling, scrawny Bronx Jew and Woody Allen’s alter ego played by Jesse Eisenberg, escapes from New York and his domineering, dysfunctional family to seek his luck in Hollywood, knocking on his uncle Phil’s mansion door. Phil, played by Steve Carell, is a caricature version of a powerful, hyper-influential, name-dropping Hollywood agent who barely recalls his nephew’s name. Bobby moves into a Hollywood motel and starts working as an odd-job man for his uncle…Enter Vonnie, Phil’s secretary (Kristen Stewart) who immediately captivates Bobby’s ingénu New Yorker with her supposed down-to-earth beauty, as well as being uncle’s mistress. Whom will she pick, that is the core of the romantic conundrum: the adoring, adorable puppy-eyed nephew or the shark-like but sappy uncle? While at first hopeless, Bobby’s wooing bears fruit once his uncle announces to Vonnie his inability to leave his wife and Vonnie gradually starts seeing Bobby with different eyes.
Making use of a range of rather trite romantic comedy tropes such as the lovers starting off as friends, the joust between diametrically opposed romantic heroes (the hapless underdog and the overbearing alpha male), the lacking in credibility choice of the heroine and its supposedly long-lasting consequence on the lives of the trio, Café Society is nevertheless a highly watchable, easy-going, prettily executed trifle. Apart from the pedestrian love triangle, Café Society references of a number of well-accustomed tropes – the overuse of the barely funny Jewish jokes alongside a few other heavy-handed ethnic stereotypes (lest the audience misses the references – the Jewish domination of Hollywood, the Jewish New York underworld crime scene are both spelled out), the persistently hammered away juxtaposition between East Coast and West Coast cultures and lifestyles, the shallow critique of the Hollywood establishment interspersed with innumerable references to the “golden era” of the big Hollywood studios – nothing groundbreaking or unheard of in either plot or treatment, but nonetheless a palatable cocktail.
The merit for that is mainly the charismatic, if unoriginal, performances by Steve Carell as the clichéd but vervy Hollywood Jew, and to a lesser extent, Eisenberg’s turn as the progressively self-assured arriviste. The downside is Kristen Stewart’s dull and lackluster screen persona – we need the male characters to occasionally spell it out for the audience how incredibly beautiful she is, such is her lack of aura and onscreen charisma. While the ending tries to stump the romantic comedy genre trope, it is schoolboyishly executed as Bobby’s utterly flat and unconvincing regret for his lost love (he proclaims thinking of Vonnie every day) is mirrored by Vonnie’s dreamlike look (which literally has Carell proclaim she has a dreamy look followed by a close-up of Stewart’s face looking like someone who has just been instructed to ‘look dreamy’) over in Hollywood as she pines for Bobby.