It’s that time of the summer again, when moviegoers of a certain stripe dutifully line up for Woody Allen’s latest offering. Alas, these days a lot of us look at it more like an annual obligation — as one would a trip to the dentist or the DMV. Allen may have recently scored Cate Blanchett an Oscar and won some over-generous reviews for his 2013 Tennessee Williams’ riff “Blue Jasmine,” but the subsequent “Magic in the Moonlight” and “Irrational Man” ranked among the very worst of his career. Inert and indifferent, movies so slack and repetitive that the filmmaker himself seemed to be forgetting what happened from one scene to the next.
So it’s my surprise and delight to report that “Café Society,” the Wood-man’s 46th theatrical feature, represents a huge leap in ambition, with an unorthodox structure one might even call bold. It’s a strange picture; a melancholic dirge in the guise of a comic bauble, at once light as a feather and pitilessly sad. “Café Society” is Allen’s best since “Midnight in Paris,” and they’d make a great double bill, both films interrogating a warm and fuzzy nostalgia that’s incredibly soothing and ultimately useless.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as young Bobby Dorfman, who leaves New York to go work for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a hotshot agent in 1930s Hollywood. Bobby arrives bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, dazzled by the palatial mansions, movie star gossip and spectacular soirees. (“I’ve never had champagne with bagels and lox before,” he nervously natters.) Like most actors who star in Woody Allen movies, Eisenberg adopts his director’s signature tics and mannerisms. Unlike most actors who star in Woody Allen movies, he happens to be very good at it, hitting the stammering rhythms without falling into slavish imitation. Maybe it’s because Eisenberg had practice mimicking his boss in a segment of Allen’s 2012 anthology “To Rome with Love,” but Bobby’s a fully-rounded character of his own, not just an avatar.
He falls hard for his uncle’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and boy, don’t we all. Stewart delivers an almost absurdly luminous performance, caressed by the golden hues of legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (of “Last Tango in Paris” and “Apocalypse Now”), who raises Allen’s game immeasurably. For the first time in ages, the director seems to be trying to express something with the camera instead of just using it as a recording device. His first foray into digital video has an exquisitely polished flatness, attuned to the sumptuously shiny surfaces of this gilded age.
Bobby loves Vonnie. She might even love him back a little, but there’s somebody else. We learn long before our poor protagonist does that Vonnie’s been sneaking around with Uncle Phil. (Carell struggles in the role and never quite nails down the performance. He was a last minute replacement for Bruce Willis, dismissed a couple of days into shooting due to a quote-unquote “scheduling conflict.” A shame, as Carell can’t muster the rakish charm that Willis used to pull off in his sleep back when he cared about acting.) Much earlier in the picture than one might expect, Bobby finds out about the affair and asks Vonnie to choose: me or him. She chooses him.
And ... life goes on. Bobby goes back to New York while the novelistic “Café Society” expands to tell stories of Bobby’s gangster brother (a very funny Corey Stoll) and a popular nightclub the Dorfman boys wind up running together, with curious asides about family members and random socialite types, all narrated by Allen in a halting, breathy voice that alarmingly sounds every bit his 80 years of age. It’s the story of a young man’s heartbreak told with an old man’s wisdom. The world keeps spinning even when you don’t get the girl of your dreams. Years go by, and Bobby eventually even finds himself another shiksa (Blake Lively) to settle down with and live happily ever after. Babies are born, people die. Every once in a while Bobby and Vonnie run into each other, wondering for a moment or two what might have been.
Like most Woody Allen screenplays from the past 20 years, “Café Society” feels like a first draft, with a few clangy dialogue passages and bum one-liners that could use some punching up. But he feels engaged with the movie in ways he usually isn’t. I guess you can credit Storaro for a lot of the visual wonderment, and a closeup of Kristen Stewart is worth more than a thousand words. Still, there’s something haunting about the way Allen lingers on these empty Hollywood estates or fading sunsets, and the zingers are fatalistic even by Woody standards. ("Live every day like it could be your last and someday you'll be right.") The pace picks up as the film goes along, scenes get shorter the way life seems to move faster as you grow older. There’s a wistfulness in the movie’s relentless passage of time, accumulating unexpected emotional power by the end.
“The year is changing,” Bobby sighs on a bittersweet New Year’s Eve. He’s thinking of Vonnie again. Somewhere, far away, she’s thinking of him. The clock strikes midnight, and keeps on ticking.