Café Society is a case study in late-period Woody Allen movies. Allen’s 46th feature finds the director illustrating the same tendencies that have been symptomatic of his recent work; like To Rome with Love, Café Society boasts a melangé of vacation-ready locales, sunlit Los Angeles vistas so flaxen they look appear permanently filtered by Instagram. As in Midnight in Paris, Allen descends into the early 20th century to find himself, with the Golden Age of Hollywood standing in for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Lost Generation.
As in recent efforts, the results are somewhat mixed. Since Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen has become over-reliant on voiceover, conveying things that are happening onscreen even as the narrator is speaking. In Café Society, the assistant to a famous Hollywood producer discusses a pertinent dilemma with her roommate: Should she marry her boss, who has promised to leave his wife for her, or his nephew, a nebbish script reader who wants to take her away to New York? Their dialogue is drown out by Allen’s own pontificating, stepping in for narration duties this go-around.
But if Café Society is a better-than-average Allen effort, it’s because he’s returned to the proper milieu on which to hang his usual existential and romantic obsessions. The early days of Hollywood are a frequent subject for Allen, chronicled in films like Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo, some of his best works. There’s a love and appreciation for the period missing in his last two perfunctory features. If Irrational Man and Magic in the Moonlight showed a director at his most bored and listless, Café Society suggests a renewed vitality in his work.
Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell, making their respective first and second appearances in a Woody Allen film, play Vonnie and Phil, one side of Café Society’s love triangle. Phil, a big-shot who hobnobs with Irene Dunne and Judy Garland, has promised to leave his life behind for Vonnie. She has never asked for this. Vonnie is grounded and realistic, both about their romance and Hollywood itself. On her first date with Bobby (new Allen regular Jesse Eisenberg), Vonnie takes him to a small Mexican restaurant where she tells him that she would rather live on Venice Beach than in Beverly Hills. By dessert, Bobby has already fallen in love.
The standout is Stewart, who perfectly navigates Vonnie’s conflicted feelings about her dueling suitors. Bobby, an introvert who is yet another in a long line of stand-ins for the director, plans to run a nightclub with his gangster brother (Corey Stoll). He talks of getting married and sharing an apartment in Greenwich Village. The scenario raises red flags for Vonnie. What if he isn’t a success and begins to resent her for it? Phil represents not only wealth but stability, if not necessarily happiness. Stewart is quietly mesmerizing to watch, an actress seemingly born with a faraway gaze, suggesting that one’s mind and heart might be elsewhere. Like the movie around her, she glows.
Café Society returns to a theme frequented in Allen’s works. Vonnie and Bobby, through circumstance, end up with lives they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves. Although she comments that he has the heart of a poet, Bobby ends up like the Hollywood moguls at which he sneers, a nightclub owner who wears expensive suits and schmoozes the clientele. He settles down with a nice, pretty wife (Blake Lively) whom he likes but, perhaps like Phil before him, he does not love. When they meet later in life, he resents Vonnie for what she’s become, but she points out that their lives are mirror images of each other.
The key to the film’s success, however, is not the story — which suggests Crimes and Misdemeanors played in a minor key — but the way it’s told. The film, shot by Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris), is among the most visually appealing Allen has ever made, a movie that’s so ravishing it’s almost pornographic. Both beautiful and faintly sad, it’s hard not to get lost in Allen’s recreation of a bygone era, a stroll through the classic movie palaces and the art deco triumphs of pre-war Los Angeles.
Because it’s a late-period Woody Allen film, though, not everything in Café Society works. The director primarily deals in ensembles, but so many of his actors are treated as set dressing, given little to do by a screenplay that lacks a reason for them to exist. Stoll, who broke out five years ago in the director’s Midnight in Paris, is an afterthought as a hotheaded hustler whose way of solving conflict is murder. A running gag involves his associates throwing men they bump off — including a neighbor who won’t turn down his music — into a pit of concrete. The great Jeannie Berlin (The Heartbreak Kid) gets even less to do as Bobby’s mother, who speaks at a decibel that could cause partial deafness.
If a great deal of Café Society is shaggy and unfocused, it’s at least pleasing in its shapelessness. Café Society is not quite one of Woody Allen’s best, but it’s good enough to make you hope that he never leaves old Hollywood. The era suits him.