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Eisenberg (left) and Stewart in Cafe Society. Woody Allen's latest confection is a sweet if insignificant bonbon, populated with themes that will be familiar to fans of his films.

Enough material here to stir the emotions

Sep 9, 2016 5:50 AM

AFTER spending much of the past decade directing all-star ensembles in various travelogue-worthy European locales (London, Barcelona, Paris, Rome, the French Riviera), Woody Allen has focused his attention stateside with films like Blue Jasmine (2013) and Irrational Man (2015). Café Society, his contribution to the cinematic arts this year, is a tribute to America's Golden Age of music and movies.

His latest confection is a sweet if insignificant bonbon, populated with themes that will be familiar to fans of his films. With varying degrees of success, the world according to Woody invariably involves a penchant for witty dialogue, charming if neurotic behaviour, an undisguised affection for jazz, an imperfect romance and a discussion or two about Jewishness - plus the idea that no matter how wonderful life seems, fate always has a way of spoiling the party.

The posh Hollywood Hills in the 1930s: agent-to-the-stars Phil Stern (Steve Carell) gets a call from his niece Evelyn (Sari Lennick) in the Bronx informing him that her younger brother Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is heading to Hollywood and hoping to snag a job. Could Phil possibly fix him up with something?

Phil is busy hob-nobbing with studio chiefs and movie stars and doesn't have the time of day for his nephew at first, but finally gives him a job as an errand boy. Phil's secretary Veronica or Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) is tasked with showing the inexperienced Bobby - a deer in the headlights - around town.

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Not surprisingly, the kid is thoroughly enchanted by her and even after she informs him that there's a boyfriend in the wings, they continue to hang out.

Back in New York, Bobby's working-class parents Rose and Marty (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) are proud that he's finding his way in Hollywood. Older brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is making ends meet in a more unconventional way as a brutal gangster - although there's a comic element to the way he bumps people off before burying them in cement.

Evelyn's letters to Bobby are littered with pearls of wisdom: "Mom says: 'Live everyday like it's your last - someday you'll be right'." Bobby and Vonnie are now a couple but the budding romance collapses - along with his world - when he discovers that Vonnie has been having an affair with Phil; after she chooses the older man over him he returns to New York, distraught and heartbroken.

There, he joins Ben in a nightclub venture that turns into a raging success, patronised by the rich, the famous and the powerful. When Ben is nabbed by the authorities, Bobby takes over and continues to operate the best joint in town, where he meets another girl named Veronica (Blake Lively). They start dating, marry and have a family.

Naturally, Bobby's past and present are destined to collide. He meets Phil and Vonnie when they visit the club, and it's no surprise for him to discover that the torch is still burning bright for her. "Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living - but the examined life is no bargain either," says Evelyn's husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken). Sometimes, life has its own agenda in store for us.

At 80, Allen is long past the age where he can play a viable romantic lead but his thoughts, his words and his voice (as Narrator) are still valid and amusing, if somewhat diminished. There's not enough material here to fill an entire movie, but there's enough to stir the emotions - and perhaps, to let us dream a little too.

Rating: B-

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