Cafe Society (2016)

Woody Allen was born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn, New York. The year: 1935.

I know this because John Hedges and I once attended a quiz night (circa 1974) and he had memorised these facts. For my part, I had memorised Terry McCann’s prison number from the TV series Minder

Little did we know that entertainment questions asked at these functions were never this intricate while questions on physics, German politics and the nervous system of the bee were often such they would challenge Barry Jones.

So Woody and I go back a long way. I am an unswayable fan. 

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask (1972), Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Midnight in Paris (2011) are all wonderful memories for this reviewer and club member Terri Reilly reminded us at post-film dinner of the quirky Zelig (1983) where he played a man who can act and begin to look like whoever he is around.


For decades Woody Allen has introduced us to his formula. The credits – always in the same font, white writing on black background – with the main players names listed in alphabetical order. The often brilliant musical score, most often jazz for New York; relevant music to whichever European city is the background; or spot-on orchestral of the times for west coast USA. He has probably outlived some of his producers but for many years it was Robert Greenhut, Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins. Before the opening scene: “Written and Directed by Woody Allen.”

The formula also relates to subject matter. The main character has almost always been an autobiographical creation. Whether it be Woody playing himself or in the past 20 years, John Cusack, Larry David or Owen Wilson having a try, the story usually revolves around a self-conscious writer trying to fathom the mysteries of the female.

So enter Jesse Eisenberg in 2016, playing Bobby Dorfman, a Brooklyn kid who moves to Hollywood to escape his father’s mundane jewellery business. Eisenberg doesn’t play a writer but in almost all aspects he is the Woody Allen character.

The film is Cafe Society and a reviewer for whom I have the greatest respect, David Stratton, thought it so disappointing he wrote it was time Woody hung up the pen and retired. Harsh.

While not a great film, I feel had Cafe Society been released in 1986 instead of this year, it may have been reviewed more fairly?  It isn’t a bad Woody Allen movie nor is it a really good one. However, if you keep following the same formula, it’s much easier for viewers and reviewers to get a little tired or bored. Cafe Society falls into the trap of being one of Allen’s final movies, rather than situated in his middle years.

It’s a story of unrequited love. How two people don’t get together but how they each marry adoring partners and live happy lives. Perhaps they would have been happier together, who knows? 

Certainly the cast is strong. Kristen Stewart is very good as Vonnie, the main love interest; Steve Carell holds up his end as Bobby’s press agent uncle; Corey Stoll doesn’t have much to do as Bobby’s brother but I like him so he gets a mention;  Blake Lively is luminous as Bobby’s wife; and Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott provide good renditions of clashing Jewish parents.

Eisenberg, who does little for me while he is on screen, plays the Woody part pretty well.

Was it intended that the first half of the movie, set in Hollywood, be lame and the second half, set in Manhattan, far, far better? Comedies often take time to establish background and character before the real gags take hold but this appeared a long time coming. Woody Allen’s narration (and didn’t his voice sound really old?) seemed to over explain what was about to happen. 

However, this could be the writer-director’s take on modern America? As one gets older, tolerance of the public can become much thinner. Has Woody finally realised: “For my films to work in my own country I have to explain things better because Americans often don’t get the nuances?”

Well they are about to make Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump president so that’s probably a given?

Score: 3

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