Woody Allen plays it safe again, Sam.
Nostalgia and regret are recurrent themes in Allen’s work and as with all of them, there’s much in Café Society that recalls elements of his better films. In particular, it most closely resembles moments from Midnight in Paris, Bullets Over Broadway, Crimes and Misdemeanours, and his script of Play It Again, Sam. To the film’s detriment, Allen just doesn’t offer anything sufficiently original into the mix.
Jesse Eisenberg is Woody Allen incarnate as a halting Bronx native, Bobby Dorfman, who moves to Hollywood in its Golden Age with a vague desire to get a job in the movie industry, and becomes a ‘gofer’ to his well-to-do Uncle Phil (Steve Carell). A Hollywood heavyweight and expert schmoozer, Phil takes a shine to the idea of having a blood relative on the West Coast in whom he can confide, and so sets about ingratiating Bobby into his Hollywood circle. He summons a secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around town, and the pair bond during a tour of movie stars’ homes.
Vittorio Storaro exquisite cinematography lights Stewart’s face like a Caravaggio and Bobby is drawn to the sardonic beauty’s distaste for Hollywood fakery. (Sidebar: The role of Vonnie comes so soon after Stewart’s Cesar-winning turn as an A-list actress’ P.A. in the excellent Clouds of Sils Maria, I’m starting to wonder whether her post-Twilight contracts stipulate that her characters all engage in a winking condemnation of ‘celebrity’).
Bobby pitches woo over a candlelit dinner that is shot like a scene from Barry Lyndon and the two embark upon a fledgling romance. Of course, every love plot requires a complication, so a love rival (much older, of course) throws a spanner into Bobby’s plan to whisk Vonnie away to New York.
Instead, he sprints back to the bosom of the Bronx, alone, and a family mob connection who makes everyone’s problems disappear (with the help of a cement truck), offers Bobby the opportunity to be the legitimate host of a thriving Manhattan nightclub concern. He marries a melancholy knockout (Blake Lively) who shares his lost love’s name, but a chance encounter reinforces – for everyone – how easily the past can reappear, no matter how many layers of concrete you pour over it.
Eisenberg carries the film with amiable impersonations - both of his writer/director (who also narrates, occasionally) and later, of Uncle Phil and/or Humphrey Bogart. Stewart injects complexity to Vonnie with her go-to distracted gaze, but ultimately, she’s a bit player as the ribboned sweetheart adored by two versions of the same man.