MOVIE BUFF-ET: Allen’s Café Society adds a refreshing dose of melancholy to summer movie scene

Sabrina Lantos/Amazon Studios

Set in the 1930s, Woody Allen’s bittersweet romance Café Society follows Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) to Hollywood, where he falls in love, and back …

For better or worse, a star’s name attached to a movie brings a certain level of expectation and sometimes even baggage. Woody Allen is one of those names.

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Allen doesn’t star in his latest film Café Society, but it’s as a writer and director that Allen has left an indelible mark on American film, anyway. Arguably there’s not a more personal popular director or screenwriter working in films, and Allen’s oeuvre ranks among the best in his field over the last 50 years, despite the icky piccadillos that dot his personal life.

While Allen, 80, starred in many of his pictures, in more recent years he’s taken to hiring surrogates to play his nebbishy leads inextricably based on his own on-screen persona, which he carved in films like Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters and so many others. In Café Society, Jesse Eisenberg capably fills that role as Bobby Dorfman, a young Jewish man who moves to Hollywood during its golden age to make his dreams come true.

Counting on the kindness and nepotism of his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a hotshot agent, Bobby hopes to secure a position in Phil’s agency. Phil deflects Bobby for a couple of weeks, but finely comes through with a job for the young man as his glorified gopher. Phil also has his personal assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) show Bobby the town and introduce him to people. However, Bobby is smitten with Vonnie at first site, and though she is in a relationship with another man, “a journalist,” Vonnie feels the chemistry, too.

That’s just scratching the surface of the plot, but detailing any more would give the story away. However, there is definite chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart, who shine delivering Allen’s witty dialogue. I could certainly see the two making a successful string of films together as Allen did with key co-stars Diane Keaton in the 1970s and Mia Farrow in the 1980s.

After establishing himself as a top-notch comedian on television and the big screen, Carell has proven to be a one of the better character actors in Hollywood. There’s not a trace of Michael Scott from “The Office” or Andy Sitzer from “The 40-year-old Virgin” in his performance. Phil is a totally different character, but Carell still leaves his stamp on the movie without playing to type.

Allen narrates the movie in a somewhat unrecognizable voice, but it totally works, landing smart and funning bits, and moving the picture along its journey.

Café Society is a charming, witty and funny movie, but it’s leavened with a heaping helping of melancholy. The film has a certain wistfulness to it, but it is more realistic or maybe truthful than many of the romantic comedies Hollywood foists upon us.

Who knows how history will look at the film? I personally wouldn’t rank it among the best of Allen’s work, but there are few directors/screenwriters who have accomplished as much as Allen, and that might work against my estimation of the movie. The film is entertaining, and while it’s as familiar as an old pair of house shoes, there is absolutely nothing like it in theaters today. That made a good movie even more refreshing.

Grade: B

Classic Corner

National Lampoon’s Animal House (Malco Razorback, (R) 2 hr.)

National Lampoon’s Animal House may not have been the first raunchy comedy, but the 1978 John Landis film certainly set a standard that’s hard to top Bluto, Otter, Flounder, Boone, D-Day and all their toga-wearing pals make their return to the Malco Razorback’s big screen for two specials showings Sunday at 2 p.m. and Wednesday at 7 p.m.

After seeing the movie for the first time at the all-too-tender age of 11, I asked my brother, who is 11 my senior, “Who could have come up with a movie like that?”

His response was, “Anyone’s who’s been to college.”

At that moment, I had no clue what I wanted to study, but my new life’s goal was to go to college, despite some of the being over my head in an below-the-belt sort of way.

I think that’s what makes Animal House so beloved. It’s outlandish, but it contains a least a grain of truth and a ton of nostalgia for viewers no matter when they attended college.

While the movie plays as a period piece today, it remains a classic. Nearly 40 years after its release, the movie is still a cultural reference point, particularly the John Belushi’s “was it over when” pep talk, in which the outlandish Bluto Blutarsky confuses they Germans with the Japanese. But, hey, he was “rolling.”

I’ll refrain from destroying any more of the film’s material, and just suggest you see the movie in one format or the other, if you’ve never had the chance.