Directed by Woody Allen
Opens July 15
Woody Allen has been making movies so long and so frequently, through changing times and plenty of personal scandal, that it’s especially hard to tell when he’s entered the final phase of his career, even as he pushes into his ninth decade of life. Café Society, his latest, is too slight to be called a sum-up of everything he’s done before. The most it can do is sum up the last decade or so, or at least certain elements that have fascinated him in his dotage: It’s a period piece with some crime elements and discussions of the roles of luck and fate in romantic travails. The cast in turn features many performers who have worked with him in the past decade; back for another go-around are Jesse Eisenberg (To Rome with Love), Steve Carell (Melinda and Melinda), Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris), and Parker Posey (Irrational Man).
With the exception of Midnight in Paris, which gave Stoll a breakout role playing Ernest Hemingway, you may notice that the titles listed parenthetically above are not some of Allen’s better-regarded works; some of the repeat performances in the new film seem like a second crack at bat. Eisenberg in particular is a born Allen surrogate even when he’s not actually in a Woody movie (check the way he starts a sentence with “Fellas…” in Adventureland), and functions as sort of a fountain of youth in which to dip Allen’s sometimes-stilted screenplays. Promoted from the ensemble of Rome, he plays Bobby Dorfman, a young man who leaves his New York home to pursue a career in 1930s Hollywood, where his uncle Phil (Carell) works as a high-powered agent. Bobby falls in love with Phil’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who, unbeknownst to him, has been engaging in an affair with the married Phil. Vonnie feels torn between the older, financially solvent, potentially unreliable Phil and the young, puppyish Bobby.
This is the third movie to pair Stewart and Eisenberg, and as different from American Ultra as that film was from Adventureland. Neither of their previous movies have been hits, which makes it hard to ignore a feeling of gratitude toward Café Society for reuniting them despite the obvious lack of financial incentive—sort of a Woody Allen trademark, even as he’s had a surprising number of late-career hits. They’re a terrific onscreen couple; their respective hesitations move together like a little dance, and here they make Allen’s writing tics sound human. Eisenberg doesn’t shy away from the Woody Allen approach to romance—by turns pushy and clinical—but the needling feels less icky opposite his frequent screen partner. Eisenberg also has chemistry with Blake Lively, who turns up later as a New York woman who finds Bobby’s Jewishness exotic.
Allen still hovers over the movie; he narrates it, his voice noticeably lowered with age. That he’s never before made a real Los Angeles movie would make sense even to casual watchers who mostly just know Annie Hall. Even the movie actually titled Hollywood Ending was set in New York. His omniscient Café narration keeps a foot back in his hometown following Bobby’s family, including his criminal brother (Stoll); eventually, the city re-asserts itself (and not just within this narrative, but Allen’s; amazingly, this is only his third movie with New York scenes in the past decade or so). It’s almost like an origin story for his coastal preferences, through the framework of a faux-autobiographical novella (old as he is, Allen was not a young man in the 1930s).
But despite the writer-director’s tendency to over-narrate (and have his characters say exactly what they’re feeling to fill in the gaps), Café Society is a movie, and even by Allen’s high standards, it’s a gorgeous one. Working with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (frequent collaborator of Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola, and Warren Beatty), Allen shoots at lower angles than usual, giving the LA glitz a subtle sense of bigness. The images work on a more intimate scale, too, when a blackout at Bobby’s apartment turns Eisenberg and Stewart into silhouettes with reddish lighting. The visual richness fills out the movie when it feels thematically shallow—more than any recent Allen movie, this one feels like an actual (if bittersweet) romance, rather than a parable, fable, or short story. Café Society may not say much profound about Los Angeles, or New York, or the 1930s. But this time Allen has a way of leaving well enough alone; it doesn’t pile on the twists or coincidences or cruel tricks of fate. It won’t be his last note, but it’s a wistful one.