Going into a new Woody Allen film, there’s always the hope that it’s going to be major, like “Blue Jasmine,” and not one of his trifles, like the Allen movies that have opened the Cannes Film Festival in recent years (“Hollywood Ending,” “Midnight in Paris”). At this point, however, his track record vastly favors the probability that it’s going to be a trifle, at which point the question then becomes: Will it be one of his good ones — that is, one of those Allen fables that really sings? “Café Society,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a sweetly naïve Bronx nebbish who journeys to Hollywood in the 1930s to seek his fortune, has been made with all the verve and high-style panache and star magnetism of a small-scale Allen gem. Yet the film, watchable as it is, never quite overcomes the sense that it’s a lavish diagram working hard to come off as a real movie. With intermittent romantic sparks struck between Eisenberg and his co-star, a poised and glowing Kristen Stewart, “Café Society” is likely to draw a larger swath of the Allen audience than his last two, “Magic in the Moonlight” and “Irrational Man.” But there may be a limit to its success, since it’s one of those Allen films that keeps talking about passion instead of actually making the audience feel it.
Eisenberg, looking handsome in wide-pleated pants and a curly pompadour, is the latest in a long line of actors who have been given the obvious directive to channel Allen’s onscreen spirit. But he does a more appealing job of it than most, because the Eisenberg mannerisms – the antic verbal dexterity, the slight sputter of people-pleasing insecurity – match up so organically with Allen’s own. Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, who arrives in Hollywood looking to get a job in the office of his uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), a veteran agent so powerful that he can’t turn around at a pool party without being badgered about some deal he’s negotiating for Ginger Rogers or William Powell. We suspect — or maybe hope — that Phil is going to be the oily player who lures Bobby into his world of corrupt glamor, but Carell, looking appealingly fleshy, plays Phil as a busy, babbly Type A mensch who gives his nephew errands to run and finds the time to introduce him to all the right people.
One of those is Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Stewart), a willowy but disarmingly level-headed former ingénue who claims to reject the Hollywood game. She takes Bobby on an impromptu tour of celebrity mansions, and they discuss the larger-than-life quality of movie stardom, which prompts Vonnie to insist: “I think I’d be happier being life-size.” Stewart makes you touch the reality of that line. She sheds some of her own halting mannerisms to play a woman of warmth who, with a twinkle, holds her ardor close to the vest, and the mood of quiet confidence fits the actress beautifully. It’s that quality that attracts the guileless Bobby, and it isn’t long before puppy love ensues.
There’s a twist, of course: Vonnie already has a boyfriend — and that lover, it’s revealed early on, is none other than Uncle Phil, who has promised to abandon his wife and marry Vonnie. There’s nothing very original about this love-triangle dilemma, especially in a Woody Allen film, where it directly mirrors so many of the setups in his earlier work, notably the adulterous tangle of “Manhattan.” The question is: Where will he take it this time? And the answer turns out to be: not somewhere very interesting. Carell’s Phil, even though he’s betraying his wife, is portrayed as such a victim of his own romantic devotion that it’s hard to root against him — and Vonnie, in fact, insists that she loves both men.
There’s a hint of novelty in the way this plays out against a lusciously visualized period-Tinseltown backdrop. And, indeed, Vittorio Storaro’s scrumptious, dark-toned cinematography is so breathtaking that it almost seems to be telling a story of its own. Storaro, that maestro of color and shadow, turns the wood-paneled offices and restaurants into an Art Deco daydream, and when Bobby and Vonnie are seated in Bobby’s motel room and the electricity goes out, the sudden illumination-by-candlelight looks like something out of “Barry Lyndon.” Every shot in “Café Society” glows with lustrous classicism. Yet all of this just makes you wish that Allen had brought the Old Hollywood setting to life with a richer sense of drama and play, the way that the Coen brothers did recently in “Hail, Caesar!”
If you’re wondering what the title means, “Café Society” refers to the high life back in New York City, where Bobby returns after being spurned by Vonnie. He goes to work in the nightclub owned by his cliché gangster of a brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), and he supposedly finds his place among the swells, but it’s hard to escape the slightly disappointing sense that the movie is starting all over again. And this time, more than ever, it’s telling rather than showing. Allen has chosen to narrate the film himself, which seems like a harmless enough gambit, but his voice, after a while, begins to sound almost syrupy with didactic melancholy, and we can’t help but notice that a lot of the stuff he’s telling us — Bobby gets to know politicians and gangsters! He becomes a man of the world! — should, in fact, have been the very substance of the movie’s plot. Eisenberg’s likable performance never gets a chance to grow; the character development mostly comes down to the fact that in the nightclub, he starts wearing a white tuxedo. He remains that same sweet kid, pining away. By the end, that seems to be the point: that a great many people walk around carrying the ghosts of love – a dream of what might have been. But that’s a message we need to feel in our hearts, rather than our heads, if it’s going to haunt us. Mostly, “Café Society” leaves you dreaming of the movie it might have been had Woody Allen made it by doing what he’s done in his best work: nudging himself out of his comfort zone.