With white on black titles on the screen and vintage jazz on the soundtrack, “Cafe Society” opens the way Woody Allen films have opened for time out of mind. But this one, this one does things a little differently.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and the protean Steve Carell, “Cafe Society” is of course funny, but it also ends up, almost without our realizing it, trafficking in memory, regret and the fate of relationships in a world of romantic melancholy where, as someone says, “in matters of the heart, people do foolish things.”
Also, because the film, which Allen has said was novelistic in intent, takes a bit of time to find its footing, it’s fortunate that the director has for the first time employed three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro, the great Italian cinematographer, as his director of photography.
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Collaborating with Allen’s regular production designer Santo Loquasto and shooting digitally, also for the first time, Storaro’s lush color images do complete justice to “Cafe Society’s” strong element of visual fantasy, re-creating an ideal version of the long-gone glamour of both Hollywood and New York that is the film’s 1930s setting.
“Cafe Society” is also fortunate in its casting. Eisenberg had a role in Allen’s ensemble “To Rome With Love,” but this is the first time he’s been called on to be a full-on Allen surrogate, and he does it exceptionally well, hitting the familiar cadences exactly right but still very much bringing his own sensibility to the role.
This is also the third film (after “Adventureland” and “American Ultra”) where Eisenberg and Stewart have co-starred, and the on-screen ease these empathetic performers have with each other is what Allen’s script calls for.
“Cafe Society” starts, however, with neither of these characters but rather with a man named Phil Stern (Carell), the ultimate in Hollywood agents, introduced holding court at a party set in one of the great Los Angeles houses, the 1930 Art Moderne Hollywood royalty mansion of art director Cedric Gibbons and star Dolores Del Rio.
A take-charge individual with enough status to eat with both Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper (presumably not at the same time), Stern can’t form a sentence without dropping a name in it: Paul Muni, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, they’re all in the game with him.
But though Stern in business mode is often just an inch from exasperation, Carell has the skill to make the agent a more nuanced character than we are first expecting, someone who has another side that only gradually comes into view.
Called to the phone at the party’s zenith, Stern is surprised to find his sister Rose (a marvelous Jeannie Berlin) on the line, calling from the more mundane environs of the Bronx.
It turns out that Rose’s son and Stern’s nephew Bobby (Eisenberg), weary of the family jewelry business run by his father, Marty (Ken Stott), is headed out to L.A., his first time away from home, and Rose hopes her brother will help him out.
Earnestness itself, Bobby sets himself up in an inexpensive room at the Ali Baba Motel and informs his worried mother that “it’s sunny and warm and I don’t know anyone.” Totally at sea in Los Angeles, both Bobby and the film mark time until his super-busy uncle finally finds time to see him, three weeks after his arrival.
Unsure how much to act on long-dormant family feeling, Stern hires Bobby to do errands and odd jobs. He also assigns his assistant Vonnie (Stewart) to show his nephew around the city.
Fresh-faced, buoyant and unaffected, Vonnie is a change of pace for Stewart but one she handles with her usual skill and aplomb. Vonnie’s Nebraska-born natural sunniness captivates Bobby, who falls immediately in love and is crushed to find that Vonnie has a steady boyfriend and is happy to have him just as a friend.
Because Bobby can’t get New York out of his mind (and because Allen is intent on a larger canvas here) we don’t just follow the fortunes of the characters in Los Angeles but also Bobby’s relatives back in New York.
And not just his eternally bickering parents but his aunt Evelyn (Sari Lennick), a schoolteacher with a leftist husband (Stephen Kunken); and his uncle Ben (Corey Stoll, Ernest Hemingway in “Midnight In Paris”), who, not to put too fine a point on it, is an unapologetic gangster.
Because it spends so much time with Bobby’s family, especially mother Rose and her delightful meat-grinder voice, “Cafe Society” has a more pronounced Jewish element than usual for Allen and traffics in the kind of intensely Yiddish phraseology he must have heard during his Brooklyn childhood.
There is, in fact, a feeling throughout “Cafe Society” of Allen pleasantly indulging himself, doing things he enjoys like coming up with mini-bios of nightclub patrons we barely meet that the director conveys with relish in the voice-over he reads himself.
Also, and again in the best sense, “Cafe Society” presents itself as an older director’s film, dealing with the difference between dreams and reality and the presence and persistence of regret.
Yes, someone says, though the unexamined life may not be worth living, “the examined one is no bargain either.” Unless it’s Woody Allen doing the examining.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell
Director: Woody Allen
Rated PG-13 (some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking)