Café Society
★★☆☆☆

Woody Allen’s latest shuffle down nostalgia lane, Café Society, is another pleasant but inconsequential entry in the growing list of late-career trifles by this once-great filmmaker. Set in 1930s, the story (narrated by Allen with a pronounced lack of joie de vivre) centers on a young naïve nebbish from the Bronx named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) who journeys to the dream factory of Hollywood hoping to make a name for himself. After landing a menial job with his high-powered talent agent uncle (Steve Carrell) he falls hard for his uncle’s beautiful, discerning, and remarkably grounded assistant (Kristen Stewart). 

These days Allen is more successful when working in a period setting than he is writing about contemporary society, from which he has all but removed himself. Not that some of his movies set in the idealized past don’t still come off as both anachronistic and woefully out-of-touch—like the nearly unwatchable Magic in the Moonlight (2014)—but he still possesses a better ear for the way people might have spoken, thought, and behaved in past than today.  And while the characters in Café Society aren’t especially memorable, they do come across as credible and enjoyable. Chalk it up to the cast more than the script.  Each actor fits comfortably and plausibly into Allen’s fantasy worlds of glitzy Beverly Hills and swing time Manhattan. 

The two leads, who first starred together in Adventureland (2009) and more recently in American Ultra (2015), possess genuine chemistry. Eisenberg has played an Allen surrogate before, in one of the lesser episodes of the director’s To Rome with Love (2012). Eisenberg’s screen persona and signature speech patterns align well with Allen’s patter, and he resonates as more than just an actor doing a Woody impression. But the film’s finest performance comes from Stewart, who plays perhaps the least neurotic character ever to appear in an Allen picture. Utterly self-possessed, warm, and unaffected, Stewart’s Vonnie wins our hearts as quickly as Bobby’s. 

Allen sets us up to think we’re in for a love-triangle rom-com with a dark, cynical edge—something like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment with Eisenberg, Stewart, and Carrell in place of Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray. But by the halfway point, the central conflict seems to resolve itself and the story shifts its focus away from Bobby’s adventures in Hollywood and back to New York. From then on the script darts in and out of various narrative threads, landing like needle-drops on various scenes, with Allen’s lethargic voiceover filling in the gaps.  This seemingly random structure keeps the movie from feeling boring or predictable, but it also prevents us from connecting with any of the characters. By the time the film is over, we realize we’re not watching a romantic-comedy at all, but something that attempts to evoke a sad, wistful feeling. Call it a “romantic-melancholy,” perhaps. 

The now 80 year-old Allen seems to have forgotten what his earlier work proved so well—the way to an audience’s heartstrings is through our funny bone. The characterizations of Bobby’s eccentric family members—particularly Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as his bickering parents, and Corey Stoll as his charmingly smarmy gangster brother—bear strong resemblance to the family depicted in Radio Days (1987). But where that movie brilliantly tricks us into thinking we’re watching a minor effort with 1940s stereotypes, whenever we stop laughing at the people on screen we find ourselves completely engaged with them and the sincere emotions they’re experiencing in the moment. In Café Society, we're just looking at well-acted characters from a distance.

The way the picture is photographed also keeps us somewhat removed. We admire this film’s images rather than becoming absorbed in them. Again, if the script better engaged us emotionally, we probably wouldn’t be ogling the lighting and camerawork. Working for the first time with the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor), Allen creates, what he describes in his initial piece of narration as "the sepia-tinted hubbub of the Bronx and the Technicolor vistas of Hollywood".  But while the eye-popping hues of Café Society occasionally recall the warm depth of still photography from the period, there’s nothing here that remotely evokes Technicolor. This movie marks the first time either Allan or Storaro have shot a feature digitally and they go out of their way to make every shot a stunner. Even with the sharp, grainless sterility inherent in digital photography, the look of Café Society easily trumps the same year’s Coen Brothers picture Hail, Caesar!—which is set in a similar period-Hollywood milieu but looks awkwardly modern despite being shot on 35mm by the great Roger Deakins. Working in a new medium seems to inspire Allen a bit in terms of his coverage.  We actually get the occasional close-up in Café Society—a welcome change after so many films where the majority of scenes are shot all in one, rather uninspired take. And when the long tracking shots do arrive, they feel motivated. The director even employs Stedicam whenever his narration is present—and the camera provides some of the energy lacking in Allen’s voiceover. There’s a lot to enjoy in Café Society but nothing to move you.

Directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, and Edward Walson

Written by Woody Allen

With: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott, Jeannie Berlin, Anna Camp, Sheryl Lee, Stephen Kunken, Sari Lennick, Paul Schneider, Tony Sirico, and the voice of Woody Allen

Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Editing: Alisa Lepselter

Runtime: 96 min
Release Date: 15 July 2016
Aspect Ratio: 2.00 : 1
Color