Woody Allen narrates his 47th feature as a writer and director, and for the first time, he sounds labored and drawn, as if every one of his 80 years has caught up with him. It does come as a bit of a shock to hear his voice sound so sluggish, even if we’ve grown to accept that Allen’s writing and directing for his late-period films will more often than not remain fatigued.
But while his writing in Café Society offers few new insights, another shock is that his direction isn’t nearly as lethargic as it has been. Working for the first time with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (a three-time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor) seems to have energized Allen; there’s near-constant movement as he pushes in on his actors, sometimes deploying atypical close-ups for punctuation that may surprise longtime viewers of the director’s work. Also notable, Allen and the 76-year-old Storaro are both shooting in a digital format for the first time in their careers, and the resulting visuals are some of the most gorgeous that either artist has ever deployed.
This is clear from the opening frames, which are captured at dusk around the large outdoor swimming pool of a Hollywood estate. Nearly everything is sun-kissed, including the dapper tuxedos worn by the men who sip martinis and the elegant dresses draped on the wives and mistresses who cling to their arms and hang on their words. But for all the golden hues on display, there’s also a surprising lack of another familiar glow—that of today’s ubiquitous smartphone screens. As if the sheer elegance of the guests weren’t enough of a tipoff, the old-fashioned rotary phone that is carried, cord and all, to Phil Stern (Steve Carell), the party’s host and influential talent agent, is yet another indicator that we’ve entered a different era.
Allen has set his latest, not fully realized morality tale in the 1930s, and the call Phil takes isn’t the expected one from Ginger Rogers, but an unwanted one from his older sister, Rose (Jeannie Berlin), who’s phoning from Brooklyn, but may as well be calling in from Allen’s 1987 comedy, Radio Days, another period piece steeped in nostalgia. Rose informs her distracted brother that her youngest son, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), is en route to LA, and she needs Phil to help find work for his smart but neurotic young nebbish of a nephew.
That’s right: Allen may not appear onscreen in Café Society, but Eisenberg plays Bobby as another in a long line of Allen surrogates who have fallen into the trap of emulating the sometime-actor’s more apparent mannerisms and vocal inflections—at least during the film’s first half, when Bobby is contrasted as the flip side of “Uncle Phil,” who’s nothing if not another aspect of the writer/director’s personality.
“Stop with the ‘Uncle,’ ” Phil instructs young Bobby when he finally grants a meeting with his nephew after giving the lad the runaround for weeks. “We don’t need to publicize the nepotism,” he barks before hiring Bobby to assist him as an errand boy, albeit one he’ll have little direct contact with. Instead, Phil passes Bobby off on his personal assistant, Vonnie. Kristen Stewart is downright incandescent as the Nebraska transplant who begins by taking the instantly smitten Bobby on a “map of the stars” tour of the Hollywood Hills. Eisenberg and Stewart share an easy rapport no doubt informed by the two films they’ve already done together (the 2009 gem Adventureland and last year’s less successful American Ultra). It carries over into their scenes as Bobby falls hopelessly head over heels with Vonnie, who unfortunately has a boyfriend, an older married man Bobby knows very little about because, well…if you can’t see what’s coming, you’ve seen very few Woody Allen films.
Bruce Willis had originally been cast as Phil but left after shooting a few scenes, reportedly due to scheduling conflicts with Broadway’s Misery. He may have been better suited to the role than Carell, who never quite projects the confidence and power necessary to make Phil register as anything more than a fraud, and his chemistry in scenes with Stewart suffers for it. But as the lives of our three leads become more intertwined, and Eisenberg’s Allen impression begins to cede once Bobby starts to transform into a smooth, morally suspect operator like his uncle, Stewart nevertheless brings out the best in both actors.
Along the way are a few laughs (this is an Allen film), including some courtesy of Corey Stoll in a confident, funny turn as Bobby’s gangster brother. But this is a melancholy film in which dreams are dashed and families shattered; the sting of the final third nearly redeems the failings of the first two. The picture ends at a New Year’s celebration that echoes the opening pool party, but Bobby will never be the person he was at the beginning. Like Allen though, he’ll keep on working, even if his best days are behind him.
Café Society ** ½
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Sheryl Lee, Stephen Kunken, Sari Lennick, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin. Written and directed by Woody Allen. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square.