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Cannes 2016

'Café Society' review: Cannes goes to Hollywood with Woody Allen's fanciful love triangle

Gravier Productions

Woody Allen finds his perfect double in Jesse Eisenberg as the 69th Cannes Film Festival kicks off Wednesday with a charming but slender curtain raiser that revisits tired old tropes with witty humour.

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2,617 minutes, or just under 44 hours of viewing. That’s how long it will take to watch all 21 films vying for the Palme d’Or this year – 12 of which are over two hours long. And I’m not even counting the Special Screenings, the Midnight Screenings, the beach screenings, and the many other sections that make up the Cannes movie extravaganza. Getting to watch one of the edgier offerings in the festival’s sidebars means sacrificing films in the main competition. It’s a calculated risk. Last year the three movies I skipped turned out to be the festival’s three turkeys (“The Sea of Trees”, “My King” and “Marguerite et Julien”). But the gamble can backfire. In 1987, many critics chose to pass over the lengthy, fog-ridden Scandinavian epic “Pelle the Conqueror”, only to be left red-faced when it ran away with the Palme.

Mercifully, festival organisers have opted for a short (96 minutes) and zippy curtain raiser to get the 69th edition going. “Café Society” is Woody Allen’s 47th feature film and a record-setting third Cannes opener for the veteran New Yorker, who at 80 is as chronic a filmmaker as ever. It is another jazz-infused period piece tinged with whimsical melancholy, a teasing ode to the golden age of Hollywood but without the mandatory happy ending. Like Allen’s 13 previous Cannes entries, it screened strictly out of competition. But unlike much of his recent work, it was endorsed by some hearty laughter and (moderate) applause at this morning’s press screening.

“Café Society” follows a callow dreamer from New York (played by Jesse Eisenberg) as he tries his luck in 1930s Hollywood under the reluctant wing of his uncle, a high-powered film agent (Steve Carell), who turns out to be his rival in a three-way love triangle involving his secretary (Kristen Stewart). Disappointment and disillusion eventually drive the nervy boy back to New York, where, in one of several improbable twists in the plot, he morphs into the relaxed, white tuxedoed manager of Manhattan’s most fashionable club.

Woody Allen and the rest of the crew attend the "Café Society" photocall in Cannes on Wednesday, May 11, 2016.
Woody Allen and the rest of the crew attend the "Café Society" photocall in Cannes on Wednesday, May 11, 2016.

Eisenberg is so good at incarnating both the gauche youngster and the mature manager that one almost forgets this unlikely progression. He is the near-perfect Allen stand-in: plucky, romantic, neurotic and torrential – a mile-a-minute talker. And while he is wowed by Hollywood, he remains cynical enough to resist its temptations. The mellower Stewart, on the other hand, is not an Allen natural. But her performance in an unusually bright and chirpy part is mostly convincing. A delightful Blake Lively also makes the most of a thinly written role as an alluring starlet.

The picture is stylish and very pretty. It captures the unrivalled Californian light that helped turn Hollywood into the world’s film capital, feeding its energy and sugar-coated dreams of happiness. And even when there is no daylight, the actors’ faces glow like bulbs, in scenes reminiscent of the adoring shots and ravishing close-ups of Tinseltown’s divas of old. The footage of New York is equally ravishing, though its picture-postcard quality is exasperated by Allen’s excessive use of a narrator to name-drop celebrities from the past.

From the bittersweet romance to the abundance of Jewish humour and New York gangsters, “Café Society” is classic Allen entertainment, powered by the usual toe-tapping musical score. It is teeming with his trademark themes, including love, fate, dissatisfaction, the gap between dreams and reality, and the “general meaninglessness of life”. But while there is no shortage of witty dialogue, it feels more playful than deep. Not that we would want anything weightier to get into the festival mood. There will be plenty of time to dig deeper into our seats when the competition officially kicks off tomorrow with a three-hour, family-based slow burner by Romania’s Cristi Puiu. Will it be Puiu the Conqueror?

 

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