“Cafe Society” is a period romance from the ever-prolific Woody Allen, and let’s quickly get the comparisons out of the way. The film doesn’t rank with “Midnight in Paris,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” or a couple other late-career Allen highlights. But it is an enjoyable serio-bauble with, at closure time, some affecting things to say.
The movie contains numerous familiar Allenisms — jazzy music, neurotic New Yorkers, a romantically klutzy protagonist — along with an older filmmaker’s nostalgia and gorgeous production work. The story transpires in two 1930s golden-age settings: glamorous Hollywood and jazz-age New York.
Jesse Eisenberg, serving as Allen’s on-screen stand-in this time, plays Bobby Dorfman, a Bronx-bred Jewish idealist with a pair of bickering parents (Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott), a gangster brother named Ben (Corey Stoll), and aspirations that a job in the family jewelry store can’t satisfy.
His dreams land him in Hollywood, where his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), a big-time talent agent, takes Bobby under his wing. Bobby falls for Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a quietly confident young woman who, when the two discuss the allure of movie stars, says charming things like “I think I’d be happier being life-sized.”
Vonnie loves Bobby but is already involved with Phil, who has a wife.
After his hopes collapse, Bobby returns to New York and begins managing a nightclub for Ben. He marries level-headed socialite Veronica (Blake Lively) and settles into a comfortable groove. But then, he reconnects with the now-married Vonnie. They still dream about each other. But they have made choices they feel bound to honor.
While the two leads share some chemistry, the Bobby-Vonnie romance generates little lasting impact. Allen’s multi-strand, hit-and-miss plot, to which Allen adds unnecessary mini-stories (courtesy of his own narration), diverts the focus from the central relationship and takes its supporting characters, and the able actors playing them, nowhere interesting.
Parker Posey, one of the best things in Allen’s “Irrational Man,” is wasted in the role of a socially important New Yorker, for example. Lively’s Veronica barely registers.
But the movie is still witty and enjoyable enough to qualify as, well, a decent enough Woody Allen movie. Allen still writes funny lines, and the story’s central romance, however light, is presented with intelligence and spark.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” “Reds”), in sync with Allen’s nostalgia, gives old Hollywood a golden glow that delights the eye even when the story sputters.
The performances convey an urgency that nostalgia such as Allen’s can easily inhibit. Eisenberg channels Woody superbly and gives Bobby complexity and edge. Stewart, whom Allen and Storaro light like a goddess, supplies Vonnie with a wealth of human shades.
The two performers also nicely capture the regrets people have over roads and risks not taken. Allen, in the final scenes, handles this theme with grace and depth, ending the film on a unexpectedly moving and satisfying note.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carrell, Blake Lively
Written and directed by: Woody Allen
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes