The presence of a new Woody Allen movie is a way of confirming the passage of time more reliable than your hair and/or waistline. They come annually, whether we like it or not. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Woody Allen himself likes it or not. It seems like a compulsion at this point, like he can’t help himself from making a movie even when he doesn’t believe in the script, cast, production, or final product. Thankfully, the latest entry in the endless Allen canon is at least better than the last few.
‘Café Society’ has a certain listless quality, as if Allen changed tracks on the focus of the film a few times while making it. Fortunately, it’s also anchored by some rather wonderful performances and comes together on such a satisfyingly melancholic note that it almost feels like a more cohesively constructed picture than it actually is. This is no late-inning Woody surprise like ‘Midnight in Paris’ or ‘Blue Jasmine’ that seems to recapture the filmmaker at his best, but it’s more satisfying that the cinematic sketches that he slipped out the last two years with little success. Perhaps he’s back on the rise toward another interesting movie.
Jesse Eisenberg makes his second appearance as a Woody Allen surrogate, this time playing Bobby, a young man headed to Hollywood with dreams destined to be dashed. His uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), is a big agent who hires him on as an assistant and sends him to a series of odd jobs and hobnobbing celebrity parties. Phil also sets Bobby up with his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), whom he asks to show the kid around town. Wouldn’t ya know it, the boy falls for the girl. Unfortunately, she has a secret. She’s having an affair with Uncle Phil. Although she reveals the affair to Bobby, she keeps the identity of her mister a secret. That bleeds out into an awkward love triangle as messy as you’d expect. At the same time, Bobby’s brother (Corey Stoll) is causing a ruckus in Brooklyn as an old timey gangster, eventually buying a club that he brings Bobby back to run. There, the kid grows up and marries the beautiful Blake Lively (unfortunately that descriptor encapsulates her entire character), but you know, the past always has a way of coming back.
At first glance and for about an hour, ‘Café Society’ feels like one of those late period, plotty, rambling Woody Allen romps that was likely written on the fly with little purpose beyond satisfying the director’s ceaseless desire to create. Wonderful performers like Parker Posey drift in and out and around the main narrative without ever feeling necessary. One-liners fly furiously, with a few making a soft landing. Romance blooms large, but it feels more like a genre requirement performed by pretty actors without actual human chemistry to back it up. Then, somewhere in the middle, it starts to click. Eisenberg’s stuttering Woody impression turns into a genuine character, both sad and amusing. Kristen Stewart comes alive as not merely an object of desire, but an equally lost soul unsure which path to take given that it will define her life from that point forward. The leads are wonderful, and slowly the movie reveals itself to be about that tricky journey of deciding which life you want to live and then figuring out how to be happy within it.
Of course, this being a Woody Allen flick, the morality is muddy and happiness is often just depression between moments of bliss. The central story might be constructed out of loose episodes that always end in punchlines, whether needed or not, but the emotions ring true and the film ends in a place that’s quietly devastating.
There’s a gratuitous 1930s gangster plot and a long subplot dedicated to tiresome religion jokes (guess which one!) that slows things down along the way. However, at least the central thread sticks and remains both melancholic and funny. It’s a reminder of why Woody Allen is allowed to crank out projects without question every year. He still has a knack for sneaking complex and painfully true parables about human nature within seemingly light hearted comedies. Even if his talents fade in and out (and his voiceover here reveals a somewhat disconcertingly elderly voice), the glimmers of the great filmmaker are still worth showing up for. ‘Café Society’ is a distinctly mid-level Woody Allen work, but it’s strong enough to suggest that he may still have a great film or two left in him if he maintains pace.