You could argue that Woody Allen has been making more or less the same movie for the past 20 years with varying degrees of success. Still, there’s something a little comforting about the opening moments of each of his films, whether it’s the familiar strains of old-timey jazz on the soundtrack or the credits unspooling in that same white-on-black condensed Windsor font. But at the outset of his latest film, the amusing romantic comedy Café Society, there’s an unexpected surprise—a title card that reads “Amazon Studios Presents…”. Has the world’s most stubborn, change-resistant hanger-on to the 20th century finally joined the 21st? Maybe behind the scenes, where the deals get done, but on screen Allen’s still a creature of nostalgia, pining for the past—in this case, Hollywood in the 1930s.
A sepia-tinted love letter to Tinseltown’s Golden Age, the era when gin fizzed and glamor ruled, Café Society stars Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfman—a neurotic (spoiler alert!) striver from the Bronx who heads west to make it in the movie biz with the help of his powerbroker uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Phil is a big-shot agent, always expecting a call from Ginger Rogers or Joel McCrea. With his natty suits and ear for the latest gossip (and how to use it to his advantage), he’s the charmed mover and shaker Bobby wants to be. He’s worlds removed from Bobby’s slightly dopey, hen-pecked jeweler father (Ken Stott) and his thuggish, mob-connected, nightclub-owning brother (Corey Stoll). Phil gives his nephew a job running menial errands for the agency and, more importantly, asks his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show him the Hollywood sights.
Needless to say, Bobby soon falls hard for Vonnie (with the effortlessly enchanting way that Stewart plays her, it’s easy to see why). But what he doesn’t know—and what she doesn’t tell him—is that she’s Uncle Phil’s mistress. Cue the bittersweet comic love triangle. Aside from all of the Dream Factory nostalgia, there’s something that feels a little too easy and pat about the geometric structure of Allen’s latest. It’s just another one of those obstacle-filled romances that Allen keeps setting up and knocking down in his sleep. What gives the movie its fizz are its three leads.
It sometimes feels as if Eisenberg has been practicing for the lead in a Woody Allen movie his entire life. His slightly manic nervous energy, the fast-forward rhythms of his speech, and his anxious tics are right out of the JV Woody Allen playbook. But rather than just aping Allen (as some of his previous leading man alter-egos have done with cringe-inducing results), Eisenberg gives the screwball character his own topspin. It turns out he’s a perfect fit for the Woodyverse. Stewart has a totally different energy that somehow meshes well with Eisenberg’s. He’s hot, she’s cool. With her smoky voice and sleepy-eyed knowing smile, she’s utterly charming as a young independent woman who deals in Hollywood bullshit, but is too smart to buy any of it. Meanwhile, Carell’s role isn’t nearly as flashy, but every triangle needs a stable leg. And in the second half of the film, when he feels the sting of possibly losing Vonnie to his klutzy nephew, he proves not to be the soulless blowhard you think he is. He’s becomes human.
Since Allen’s love triangle set-up is barely enough to hang a full-length feature on, the second half of the film sees Bobby spurned (as all frustrated Allen stand-ins must be) and returning to New York, where he goes into the nightclub business with his gangster brother. And this is where the film starts to unravel a bit, asking us to believe that Eisenberg’s stammering wannabe Romeo has transformed into a slick, confident nightclub glad-hander like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca who also happens to effortlessly seduce Blake Lively. It’s a little too much of a leap to ask the audience to take, but after 40-something films, Allen’s earned the right to fudge it…within limits.
As gorgeous as Café Society looks thanks to Allen’s first-time collaboration with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, The Last Emperor), it isn’t a particularly great Woody Allen movie. Nor is it a particularly disappointing one. It falls into the vast middle ground on his resume—the movies you enjoy sitting through, but quickly forget once the lights come up. It’s not as good as Blue Jasmine, but it’s better than his last two films with Emma Stone. In other words, it’s very much a… B