Every time Woody Allen releases a new film, you hope for a “Blue Jasmine” but too often get a “Magic in the Moonlight,” or worse. His newest, “Café Society,” looks absolutely fantastic: the 1930s sets and costumes (the production design is by Santo Loquasto, the art direction by Michael E. Goldman and Doug Huszti, the set decoration by Regina Graves and the costume design by Suzy Benzinger) are gorgeous, and they’re shot in lush, luminous tones by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Otherwise, however, it’s middle-grade Allen at best.
The picture is being marketed as a comedy, but it has relatively few of the zingers Allen used to specialize in (virtually all of them are crammed into the trailer), and even those feel tired or recycled. It’s actually more of a nostalgia piece about lost love and eras long past. A tone of melancholy and resignation permeates the entire film, which focuses on the culture of Depression-era celebrity without, however, offering any Depression-era context whatsoever. The sadness here is personal, not national, perhaps a reflection of its septuagenarian creator’s mood as he looks back at roads taken and possibilities not seized during his life.
Allen’s quasi-surrogate this time around is Bobby Dorfman (Jessie Eisenberg), who’s tired of working in the New York jewelry store owned by his father (Ken Stott). So his mother (Jeannie Berlin) agrees that he should go to Hollywood, where her brother Phil (Steve Carell) is a big-time agent to the stars. When Bobby gets out to the West Coast, his busy uncle puts him off, but eventually takes him on as an office gofer, asking his pretty young secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the boy around.
Bobby, of course, falls hard for Vonnie as she drives him past the stars’ homes, takes him out for the occasional lunch and even agrees to come to his apartment for a home-cooked meal. The hitch is that she has a boyfriend she’s devoted to, who turns out to be none other than Phil. He blows hot and cold about leaving his wife (Sheryl Lee) and kids, though, and so after he dumps her, Vonnie turns to Bobby, who imagines married life back in the Big Apple with her. But when Phil changes his mind again—after learning of Vonnie’s relationship with his nephew—and despite the fact that she once told Bobby she’d prefer to be “life-sized” rather than larger than life (like Phil’s clients), she opts to marry Uncle Phil instead, and Bobby returns home alone.
There opportunity awaits him in the form of an offer from his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a small-time hoodlum who acquired ownership of a nightclub by knocking off its former owner. Ben offers him the job of glad-hander at the place, hobnobbing with the guests and making them feel wanted. The aura of gangster chic draws in the upper crust, especially when Ben is arrested for, among other things, disposing of a neighbor whose noisiness had irked Ben’s sister (Sari Lennick) and her leftist husband (Stephen Kunken). Bobby, meanwhile, has married a pretty young thing (Blake Lively) and settled down into a comfortable family life.
Of course, who should show up at the nightclub one day but Phil and Vonnie? It’s like Ilsa Lund waltzing into Rick’s with Victor Laszlo at her side. While Phil goes about his business, Vonnie, who has embraced the Hollywood lifestyle without any apparent qualm, reminiscences with Bobby about the past, and as they spend time alone, a twinge of regret sets in.
“Café Society” has virtues beyond the visual splendor of time and place. It gives Eisenberg the chance to show that he can tone down his usual nervous shtick to an ingratiating level, and Carell another opportunity to demonstrate his restraint as well. Best of all, it brings out Stewart’s unquestionable charisma; derided for her “Twilight” work, she continues to prove here, as she did in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” her dramatic ability. The remainder of the cast is relegated to caricature parts, which some (Berlin) pull off better than others (Stoll). But the background score consisting of versions of period pop songs is a lovely complement to the images.
Ultimately, though, the film fails because of Allen. There’s a sense of lethargy not only to the writing but to the direction, which leaves many scenes feeling leaden or, especially those involving Ben’s mob activity, tonally off-key. Even his delivery of the narration—excessive in any case, and too often merely declaring characters’ emotional reactions in order to save him the trouble of dramatizing them—comes across as fatigued, as though he were reading the words dully off a teleprompter.
Still, one appreciates Allen’s continuing productivity. Though the ratio of the good to the mediocre in his output is no longer as positive as it once was, the more films he makes, the likelier it is that occasional nuggets will turn up among the dross. Unhappily for all its surface sheen, “Café Society” isn’t one of them.