Late period Woody Allen is certainly filmmaking that’ll charm those already predisposed to finding comfort in his rhythms and style – the unwavering font, the American songbook score, the familiar character types, the thematic concerns of a midcentury pop philosopher – and deter those who’ve tired of his tricks (or his personal life). He can still provide a surprise now and then – last year’s Irrational Man was a (probably) self-aware curdling of his tropes; 2011’s Midnight in Paris had lovely French time-travel romanticism – but you mostly know what you’re going to get. Well, you make a new movie a year for over four decades and see how many new topics and techniques you can come up with. So it’s no surprise Café Society, this year’s Allen feature, finds him noodling around with ideas he’s used better before. There are unrequited romantic connections, affairs, insecurities, intellectual posturing, an ambitious and sensitive young Jewish man and his family, and the wistful melancholy of nostalgia. It’s not Allen’s best representation of any of the above, lightly skipping across the surface of places where his writing has other times deepened.
One of his period pieces, it’s told in a brightly artificial simulacrum of New York and Los Angeles of the late 1930s, the better to keep the jazz flowing on the soundtrack and the arch reproduction pseudo-literary stuffiness of the dialogue era-appropriate. Jesse Eisenberg stars as a squirrely young New Yorker who on a whim moves to Hollywood in hopes his uncle (Steve Carell), a high-powered agent, will find him a job in the industry. His mother (Jeannie Berlin) calls ahead and tells her brother to help, but the agent brushes her off. He’s too busy to look after his nephew, but after weeks of waiting relents and puts the eager young man to work running errands. This gets him working closely with a sweet, smart assistant (Kristen Stewart) with whom there’s instant infatuation. Too bad, then, that she has a mysterious unseen boyfriend, a married man whose identity is eventually revealed to be a character we’ve already met. Standard setup, the plot and dialogue are merely going through the motions, but there are some small glimmers of life amidst the artifice.
The early, breezy passages of the movie are a mild warmed-over farce, with characters jostling for attention and obscuring truths. It has low-key charms, but the cast remains posed and situated in the precise, and precisely too-perfect phony, period detail. It looks not like events lived, or situations performed, but games of make-believe staged for our benefit. It’s not a cast; it’s people in costumes. Still, the actors do what they can. Stewart, who unfailingly brings a real sense of grounded presence to the screen, is the highlight. She has a scene where she has to keep feelings hidden while reacting in shock and pain as one lover unknowingly recounts a slight the other shared in secret. The emotion is plain on her face in a twitch of the eyes and a slight shift of the jaw, and yet it is entirely believable that her scene partner wouldn’t notice. A close second for most valuable player is Berlin, grounding a stereotypical Jewish mother role with lived-in conviction. Eisenberg, for his part, plays the Allen-impersonation trap, stammering and twitching, stumbling through wordy lines. And Carell puffs out his chest for a shallow impersonation of an early-Hollywood powerbroker type.
As the film progresses Allen balloons the small, simple, obvious premise into something approaching a sprawling semi-comic family drama. We end up following Eisenberg’s character for several years past the end of the farce, through its fallout and into what’s surely at least a decade of time passing. Threaded throughout are cutaways to Corey Stoll as his two-bit gangster brother who opens a café (and draws in a bunch of high society) while staying a step ahead of the law. (That many of these cutaways are quick gags about gruesome murders is an odd hitch in the otherwise pleasant, even-keel tone.) Other people floating through the supporting cast include a glamorous divorcee (Blake Lively), and a sharply dressed bicoastal power couple (Parker Posey and Paul Schneider). There’s some fun in the mostly intelligent casting, though not every character crackles with the right interest, and not every actor is up to delivering or improving upon what they’re given. Better small pleasures are in the humble glowing cinematography from the legendary Vittorio Storaro (of such beautifully photographed films as The Last Emperor and Apocalypse Now), who captures warm sunny contrasts and, in one striking shot, a luminous, dusky, full-color angle on a bridge that recalls Manhattan’s famous shot.
With a pretty surface exploration of a small variety of relationships, it slowly becomes a melancholy movie about missed connections, about people who’d rather live in denial than face up to the ways they’ve hurt others. And even then the denial slips, leaving them contemplating their choices with regret. That’s a great flicker of life, but embedded in half-thought and underwritten scenes which often seem to grasp for obvious lines and hanging lampshades on thematic points already plainly visible above the subtext. For instance, a character actually trots out the old “an unexamined life…” saying unironically, before putting a spin at the end in a hacking punchline. Like so many of Allen’s lesser works, it’s underwritten. A great performer with a reasonably complicated part like Stewart or Berlin can be lively, dry, funny, and convincing, but smaller roles and lesser actors flounder as the plot and mood slowly peter out. Scene after scene sits flat and tired, jolted occasionally with the sparks of the better movie it could’ve been with another draft or two.