By Scott Harvey, Contributor
“Café Society” is the 47 feature film directed by Woody Allen, and it’s neither the famed director’s best film nor his worst. Allen enthusiasts will likely be familiar with his fairly recent shift from insightful romantic comedies to whimsical and artistic films, which have often received great reviews (see: Midnight in Paris, one of Woody’s best). “Café Society,” his latest movie, fits right into that niche of recent Allen films.
The movie, like many of Allen’s, is a period piece. The period in “Cafe Society,” however, is one that the director hasn’t probed before: Old Hollywood. Though it is set in the 1930s, we see little of a nation in the midst of a depression. What we see instead is a shining world of glitz and glamour that seems to be separated from everywhere else. And we see it through the eyes of Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a young boy from the Bronx, who moves to Hollywood to try and land a job with his uncle Phil (a slimy Steve Carell), a big-shot celebrity agent who name drops everyone from Gary Cooper to Judy Garland.
Bobby manages to get that job and in doing so meets his father’s secretary Vonnie (the always watchable Kristen Stewart) and falls in love. There’s only one problem: Vonnie has a long-distance boyfriend who she’s determined to stay faithful to, no matter how hard Bobby pursues her. This love triangle makes up the central conflict of the film and later becomes even more complicated with the appearance of Veronica Hayes (Blake Lively), a wealthy divorcee Bobby meets at a nightclub.
Let’s face it, Woody Allen can do a movie like this in his sleep and “Café Society” has plenty of positives . For one, the movie looks and sounds gorgeous. The period is exquisitely rendered thanks to lavish sets, vintage costumes and a rich, jazzy soundtrack. For another, “Café Society” is well-acted — something you would expect from a film with such a star studded cast. Stewart is a standout. She doesn’t give a phoned-in, static portrayal of her complex character. Instead, we see Vonnie develop as the plot and time progresses. It’s a performance with a lot of nuance to it, a hard thing to pull off. As for Eisenberg, he’s obviously been given the character Woody Allen would’ve played 30 years ago, as many other actors have before him, but he makes the most of it. Allen has picked a talented and similar-looking surrogate, and Eisenberg’s character came alive on screen.
The movie, however, does have its faults. Tonally, it’s a bit of a mess. Allen usually fuses comedy and drama adeptly, but this movie doesn’t have the easy, relaxed flow of something like “Midnight in Paris” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” It’s not funny enough to be “Bullets over Broadway” or “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” but it doesn’t have the dramatic heft of something like “Match Point” or “Blue Jasmine” either. The plot moves forward but something about it remains curiously flat throughout the movie.The love triangle is too standard to truly make the movie unique Instead, we’re struck with a sense of inevitability, as the story sticks to a fairly predictable course — that is, until the end. The movie ends rather abruptly, somewhat confusingly at first, but it does so in a thought-provoking way, which helps add some color to the proceedings.
Overall, “Café Society” is pretty average. Allen hasn’t lost his groove, but he hasn’t sought out any original concepts either. Instead, he’s churned out a solid, dependable dramedy with some sumptuous visuals and good-looking people to enjoy watching. If you’re looking for a film with a striking new angle from Woody, this won’t be the movie for you. But if you’re a fan of Allen’s recent fare particularly, this movie will probably hit that same spot .