In this mixed-up, shook-up world there are fewer and fewer things we can count on as absolutes. One of them is that there will be a new Woody Allen movie every year with a jaunty jazz soundtrack and credits written in the Windsor Light Condensed font. His new film, “Café Society,” the story of a frantic young romantic trying to find himself in 1930s Hollywood, is slice of comfort cinema with all of Allen’s trademarks intact.
Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is a native New Yorker who jumped coasts to take up in Los Angeles. The slightly neurotic east coaster is not a natural fit in Tinsel Town, but his powerhouse uncle Phil (Steve Carell) helps out, giving him a job at his powerhouse talent agency and introducing him to a beautiful secretary named Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). By day he does odd jobs for Phil—“Menial errands are my specialty,” Bobby says, “but I don’t see a great future in it.”—while on the weekends he slowly falls for Vonnie. They share a disdain for industry talk and Hollywood’s catty innuendo and a love of cheap Mexican food but she doesn’t share his feelings. Unfortunately (for Bobby) Vonnie has a mostly absent boyfriend.
Enter romantic plot complications and Bobby hightails it back to New York where he goes into the nightclub business with his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stall). Finally successful, he marries and has a child with Veronica (Blake Lively), who he nicknames Vonnie, betraying the feelings he harbours for his west coast love. When Vonnie number one returns to New York for a visit the film offers up a line that sums the situation up, “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”
A light-hearted tapestry, “Café Society” is embroidered with the odd punch line and hints of melancholy. It’s a comedy tinted with heartbreak, a look at true love and unsatisfactory options. It returns Allen to the fertile ground he ploughed with “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” and while this film isn’t a classic on those terms, it’s an engaging look at life and love buoyed by great performances.
Eisenberg does the best Woody Allen impression we’ve seen on screen in some time, but there’s more to him than simply aping the master. His journey from nebbish to notable is believable and gives the movie its heart.
Co-star Stewart hands in what may be her first truly adult role. She plays Vonnie as level-headed in a sea of dreamers. When Bobby describes Joan Crawford as “larger-than-life” she replies, simply but compellingly, “I think I’d be happier life-sized.” It’s the line that sums up her character and Stewart makes the most of it and Vonnie.
“Café Society” is a welcome uptick after Allen’s last two films, “Magic in the Moonlight” and “Irrational Man.” For Woody’s fans it may feel familiar but in the most soothing of ways.