Woody Allen’s 47th film, “Café Society,” finds him in a nostalgic mood — nostalgic for not only old Hollywood and New York’s glam high society of the 1930s but also for themes and storylines of his own classic New York films such as “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.”
Themes such as the precarious and fickle nature of love and bittersweet dreams that remain tantalizingly beyond reach are all familiar to Allen’s fan base. Yet here they haunt his movie with a wistful, melancholy moodiness that may reflect the backward glance of a man who has passed the age of 80.
Working for the first time in digital and with the great Vittorio Storaro as his cinematographer, Allen bathes this lament for times gone by in soft, velvety browns and yellows and tans as if every scene were taking place at dawn or dusk.
Whereas his earlier Manhattan-centric films were always contemporary, Allen has lately taken to staging his stories in the past.There is no reason why “Café Society” couldn’t have played out in modern times, but in making his saga about much younger Allenesque character into a period piece he frames his tale about love found and lost as a reverie rather than a modern comedy.
There is certainly no indication he intends any fidelity to historical lore. An obsessive, name-dropping Hollywood agent played by Steve Carell bears greater resemblance to the agents of the more recent Mike Ovitz/Jeff Berg era than to anyone in the ‘30s where the studio system with its long-term contracts marginalized the roles of most agents with the possible exception of Myron Selznick.
Likewise, the portrayal of New York’s so-called café society seems plucked more from Hollywood’s own gossamer fantasies rather than any actual historical research.
No, Allen is striving not for any historical accuracy but rather a means for measuring the sad calculus of what the heart wants but cannot have.
Backed by a soundtrack rich in romantic instrumental songs of the period, the writer-director spins a tale of a Jewish kid from the Bronx named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) who flees his bickering parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) for Hollywood where Uncle Phil (Carell), a fast-talking agent, may or may not find a way to give him a boost into the film business.
After many a stall, Uncle Phil does give the newcomer an entry-level gofer position and even sets him up with his attractive assistant, young Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show him around town. While she shows him the homes of movie stars (all from the street, mind you), he falls for her as any impressionable young lad would.
She cools his ardor, though, with news of a boyfriend, who always seems to be traveling. Before too long, the audience is clued to the upsetting fact that her boyfriend is really her married boss. Yes, Uncle Phil himself.
When Phil breaks things off with her, Bobby seizes his chance and woos and wins Vonnie, after a fashion, with the aphrodisiac cocktail of his winsome innocence and charming determination.
But the course of this romance does not run true so the heartbroken (or so you’re told by the film’s narration) Bobby returns to the Big Apple to work for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), who lets him manage his high-end nightclub.
Remarkably soon, Bobby is not only doing swell at his new post but romancing another Vonnie (Blake Lively). You might notice his come-on to her is smooth and practiced, a far cry from the fumbling, needy boy adrift in Tinseltown. This may reflect his months catering to the glamorous society matrons, Wall Street tycoons, politicians, writers and gangsters that flock to his club.
Truth is Allen never establishes who or what his hero is other than another substitute for the young Woody Allen. Poor Eisenberg must, in a sense, play a blank. Is he the Jewish nebbish of Allen’s earliest films or the big-city but somewhat off-center sophisticate of his “Annie Hall” period?
What does he actually want to become in Hollywood? What does he want to get out of his nightclub gig? The movie remains silent.
So it’s hard to tell much if anything about this Bobby since you’re told many things about him by a narrator and other characters but he never has a scene or situation where his actions can define his character.
One potential scene does occur early in Bobby’s Hollywood sojourn where he gets set up with a hooker who comes to his apartment. Only Allen bungles the scene with a will-he/won’t-he runaround that runs out of steam before the scene runs out of dialogue.
Allen had a potentially solid comedic idea here: what if in his first time with a hooker a guy encounters a prostitute experiencing her first time with a john? This seems ripe with comic possibilities but the scene becomes pointless so quickly it should have been cut from the release print.
It takes up space without leading anywhere or, worse, revealing anything about Bobby other than his conflicted feelings about paying for sex.
It’s also unclear why Bobby is never sullied by his involvement with his gangster brother. Allen may portray him as a naive nebbish, but how can he possibly be ignorant of his brother’s brutal dealings when everyone else in the family certainly understands the true nature of his business?
Perhaps the reason Bobby is so uncharacteristic smooth in his wooing of Vonnie the Second and their subsequent marriage — a mere montage of shots for this romance — and so blithely ignorant of what business he is in owes to Allen wanting to hurry things along for the “Casablanca”-like moment when Vonnie the First wanders into his gin joint with her new husband, Uncle Phil, on her arms.
For this is the crux of the matter. How will Bobby and Vonnie the First react to one another after the passage of time? Well, the flame erupts anew, but Allen means only for this to become an eternal flame of unrequited love.
The players do their best with the thin material. Carell seems a little stiff in his supposed love scene with the much younger Stewart. But Stewart nearly steals the movie as she plays “beauty” is such a down-home, understated manner that you can see why so many male members of this family have fallen in love with her.
Berlin and Stott have fun with the cliché of bickering Jewish parents while Shari Lennick and Stephen Kunken have a different take on the same dynamics as Bobby’s good-hearted teacher-sister and her depressed husband who exists in an existentialist funk worthy of Samuel Beckett.
Parker Posey’s model agency owner and her wealthy producer husband Paul Schneider occasionally dip in and out of scenes, barely having a chance to register, which is mostly true for the rest of a lengthy cast of actors who jam elaborate period sets like dress extras.
For all its charms and occasional laughs, the screenplay for “Café Society” feels hurriedly written and poorly edited. Key scenes that might explain Bobby’s arms-length relationships with the mobsters he works for and serves, his attitudes toward women and romantic relationships and his familial ties are missing. Meanwhile, a dozen or more characters get introduced to you without any having much impact on the story.
The movie’s final grace note is deeply felt, so much so that you wish Allen had chosen another route to get there. He is musing here, once more, about fate and what control if any we have over such things, but all too often fate here seems very definitely in the control of the film’s writer. In order for you to truly feel for these two, you need a deeper understanding of them both.
Allen has purred along on an astonish movie-a-year pace for so many years now that you get used to the occasional sloppy one he found no time to rewrite or fix. It’s just that with “Café Society,” one feels that effort might have been richly rewarded. But we’ll never know.
Opens: July 15, 2016 (Lionsgate, Amazon)
Production companies: Gravier Productions, Perdido Productions
Cast: Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott
Director-screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Lettie Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Executive producers: Ron Chez, Adam B. Stern
Director of photography: Vittorio Storaro
Production designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Suzy Benzinger
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
PG-13 rating, 96 minutes