Café Society Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell. Directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday in select theaters.
Woody Allen’s recent films have played like lazy first drafts, so it’s heartening to see him make a genuine effort with his latest picture, Café Society, even if its thematic ambition is only sketchily realized. Jesse Eisenberg plays Allen’s latest young surrogate, Bobby Dorfman, a New Yorker who moves to LA circa 1936 in the hope of landing a job with his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful Hollywood agent. Humoring the kid, Phil assigns his assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around the city, and the two soon fall in love—which is a bit of a problem, since Vonnie, unbeknownst to Bobby, is having a hush-hush affair with Phil, who’s married but claims that he intends to leave his wife at any moment.
That’s a pretty basic love triangle, and there’s also a subplot about Bobby’s brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), who’s becoming a gangster back in the Bronx. But Café Society is ultimately less interested in any particular aspect of its narrative than it is in evoking the ’30s and in suggesting, with weary resignation, that change and disappointment are an inevitable part of life. The previous Allen film it most resembles is Hannah and Her Sisters, but the comparison does him no favors—his wit is decidedly rusty now, and none of the old-movie archetypes on view here is at all memorable. Can a film be at once grand and paltry? Apparently so.