'Café Society' review: Kristen Stewart shines in breezy Woody Allen rom-com
Woody Allen's latest comedy, "Café Society" (Opening Gala feature presentation of the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival and opening in theaters nationwide July 15), is breezy and entertaining romp through the glitz of old Hollywood. But despite its all-star cast, acclaimed writer-director and richly textured 1930s glamour, Kristen Stewart shines brightest.
In short: Set in 1930s, young Hollywood hopeful Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his home in the Bronx to start a new life in Los Angeles. He finds work at the Hollywood agency run by his uncle (Steve Carell) and finds love with charming office assistant Vonnie (Stewart). Also stars Parker Posey, Blake Lively and Corey Stoll. (Watch the trailer)
Stewart is a bona fide and legitimate actress. She vaulted to the top of celebrity with the "Twilight" films, but she has earned and maintained her place as one of today's best actresses by simply being authentically grounded and charming. Her character is a natural and easy going young woman, which stands out in a film where every other female character looks like they're either going to or coming from a party at the Gatsby mansion. Vonnie is the catalyst for the main dramatic story arch - a character who finds herself in an impossible situation. While virtually every other actor in "Café" looks like they're playing some sort of mild '30s era caricature, Stewart is playing a character. The only negative that can be said of Stewart or her character is there's simply not enough of her in the movie.
And like all Woody Allen films, "Café" features a script powered by his witty banter and snappy dialogue. This works especially well for a film set in the heyday of big studio Hollywood. Allen has crafted a film that beautifully captures specific era in history and created a dynamic relationship between its two lead characters -- but is where the overall film takes a hit.
"Café" is an incongruous film - it's central romance storyline does not quite fit with Allen's attempt to capture the glamorous café society era. To Allen's credit, he effectively re-creates a vibrant world of opulence where the pretty young things own the spotlight. And Stewart and Eisenberg share a chemistry and rapport that firmly makes their relationship the thrust of "Café." But the two elements just do not mesh well together to form a completely solid film. The themes of the Bobby-Vonnie relationship do not relate much with the glitzy lifestyle. It is as if Allen really wanted to make a film set in the fashionable 1930s café society era -- and then reverse-engineered a rom-com storyline into the movie.
Entire segments of "Café" could have been reworked or wholesale removed, and the audience would be none the wiser. Blake Lively and Corey Stoll do not play characters - they are plot devices with character names. They have virtually zero motivation, zero character arch and exist only to either move the plot forward. "Café" also violates one of the rules of film - storytelling by way of voice over is criminally lazy.
The film makes several unearned time jumps, then uses some lame voice over to justify or explain what happened between time jumps. These time jumps also rob dramatic impact from several key plot points - at one point, a character starts a job, excels at his job and gets married -- all within the span of a few montage scenes. It makes the job empty (since we never see how or why the character is so good at the job) and makes the marriage just a plot point (since we only get a rushed first date-to-engagement montage).
Final verdict: "Café Society" works best when Stewart is on screen - because her relationship with Bobby is the story's dramatic core. Everything else is just a pretty looking, affable (if rushed) period comedy that clunks along to the finish line.
"Café Society" has a running time of 96 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking. This film opens in limited release July 15.