The Hollywood of the 1930s - swank watering holes, Deco manses, pristine beaches, roofs of Spanish tile - has never looked so good. If Woody Allen gets one thing right in
, his 47th (!) feature, it's the hiring of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
But maybe even that was a mistake. Enlisting the director of photography of such seared-in-memory masterworks as Apocalypse Now and The Conformist only reinforces how forgettable just about everything, and everyone, in Café Society is/are.
A shambling piffle about a Jewish kid from the Bronx who heads West and gets a job working for his uncle, a hotshot Hollywood agent, and then falls for the uncle's assistant, Café Society plays around with themes and motifs that have become altogether too familiar in Allen's films. Infatuation, infidelity, fate, morality, mortality . . . all of it played, this time, against a glammy backdrop of Los Angeles pool parties, and against a less-sunny tableau of gangsters and jazz boîtes back on the East Coast.
Jesse Eisenberg, fingers wiggling nervously, is Bobby Dorfman, the protagonist who rather aimlessly relocates to Hollywood, in hopes that his mother's brother, Phil Stern (a Brylcreemed Steve Carell), can find him a job. Phil has a lot on his plate: deals to make and drinks to take with the likes of Ginger Rogers, Busby Berkeley, Paul Muni, William Powell. (It's a Turner Classic Movies name-dropping fest.)
Phil keeps his nephew waiting a few weeks before he deigns to meet with him. This gives Bobby time for an awkward hotel-room encounter with a novice prostitute (Anna Camp). It is an exchange that is neither funny, nor sexy, nor much of anything.
But then Bobby does start in Uncle Phil's employ, and begins hanging around with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), Phil's secretary. Bobby likes her wit, her candor, the way she looks with a bow in her hair. Vonnie likes his innocence, his smarts. But when Bobby makes his clumsy overture, Vonnie begs off - she's already in a relationship, she says. Let's just be friends.
Back in New York, Bobby's older brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), is whacking people left and right. He's mobbed-up, ambitious. Eventually, he falls into the nightclub biz. As the movie toggles back and forth, East Coast to West - spanning a few years in the process - Allen provides periodic voice-overs, little chunks of expository narration, but there's no sign of dramatic, or even comedic, tension.
Café Society moves along in a kind of netherworld where nothing really matters. This poses a challenge for the cast, and only in a few instances - notably a scene between Bobby and Vonnie, huddled in a sandy cove - do the actors manage to make something of Allen's threadbare material.
Watch Stewart's subtle shift of expression, the glint of emotion in her eyes, as her character, Vonnie, puts two and two together. (Something to do with a Rudolph Valentino love-letter, found in a memorabilia store. Did they even have "memorabilia" stores in the 1930s?)
Midway along, Blake Lively joins the party as a ritzy New York divorcée who catches Bobby's eye. She's relaxed and glamorous - and as insubstantial as everyone else.
"Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer," Bobby quips. Café Society, on the other hand, is a comedy written by a benumbed one.
** (Out of four stars)
yDirected by Woody Allen. With Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, and Corey Stoll. Distributed by Lionsgate.
yRunning time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
yParent's guide: PG-13 (violence, adult themes).