At 80, Woody Allen is the filmmaker equivalent of the dad or grandfather who has almost zero interest in modern pop culture but loves to go through old photo books while listening to the music of a bygone era while telling anyone within earshot, “Those were the days.”
Allen’s 47th film, “Café Society,” is set in the 1930s and touches on themes he’s explored time and again, from illicit affairs to the mysteries of romance to criminal endeavors played mostly for laughs — and yes, at least one character contemplates the meaning of life and the horrible certainty of death and the utter futility of our day-to-day existence, because what’s it all about, REALLY?’
As Allen explained to me in an interview last year, he doesn’t go on vacations and he wouldn’t dream of retirement, because the closest he comes to bliss is making the kind of movies he wants to make — and he does it again here, which means we’re going to see the same style of opening credits we’ve seen for dozens of other Allen films, and we’re going to hear originals (and faithful covers) of music originally released on 78rpm records, and we’re going to see a blazingly talented cast fast-talking their way through some brilliant dialogue peppered with keen insights and hit-and-miss one-liners.
At this point, either you’re a late-era Woody Allen fan or you’re not. You don’t go into a Woody Allen film expecting a boatload of surprises.
“Café Society” is a gorgeous and lightweight confection, a love letter to the Hollywood of the mid-1930s, as well as the New York of the same era.
Jesse Eisenberg, whose tics and mannerisms and rapid-fire speech patterns suit him well for the Allen doppelganger role, gives one of his best performances since “The Social Network” as Bobby Dorfman, a Bronx native eager to make his way in Hollywood. Bobby arrives with the obligatory Oversized Movie Suitcases in hand and (after weeks of trying) finally gets a one-on-one with his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful agent who’s so far removed from the family he doesn’t even remember Bobby’s name.
Nonetheless, Phil hires Bobby as a gofer out of a sense of family loyalty. He even instructs his sweet and pretty assistant Veronica (Kristen Stewart) to show Bobby around Hollywood.
Bobby takes one look at Veronica and he’s a goner. Veronica might have a little crush on Bobby as well, but her personal life is … complicated.
Carell is a hoot as the name-dropping power player who takes a shine to Bobby, inviting him into his palatial home and introducing him to various moneyed people and Hollywood artists. (Says one two-time Academy Award winner, “You’ve never heard of me. I’m a writer.”)
Meanwhile, back in New York, Bobby’s gangster older brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is getting involved in all manner of violent hijinks — but even though Ben is a murderous thug, as played by Stoll he’s the funniest thing in the movie. Some of Ben’s most nefarious deeds are orchestrated for darkly comedic effect.
Circumstances lead Bobby back to New York, where he winds up running a chic nightclub owned by his mobster brother. Eisenberg does a smooth and effortless job of showing Bobby segue from a naïve fish-out-of-water in Hollywood to a supremely confident and charismatic man about town in New York City. We can almost believe a drop-dead gorgeous woman who also happens to be named Veronica (Blake Lively) would be swept off her feet within hours of meeting the slick and charming Bobby.
Almost. After all, we’re talking about Blake Lively here, who’s as photogenic as the silver screen stars referenced time and again in “Café Society.”
As wonderful as the acting is, the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (three-time Oscar winner, for “Apocalypse Now,” “Reds” and “The Last Emperor”) might be the biggest star of the film. Though it might once have been thought sacrilege for Storaro to shoot digitally, his work with a Sony 4K camera yields rich, golden and stunning deep tones in the Hollywood scenes, and early “Godfather” textures in the New York sequences.
It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Amazon Studios presents a film written and directed by Woody Allen. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive materials and smoking). Opens Friday at local theaters.