Woody Allen’s Café Society spends much of its 96 minutes promising to be better than it turns out. At least it never threatens to be as terrible as his last, Irrational Man, or as plagiaristic as Blue Jasmine (which should have been called A Cable Car Named Desire).
Café Society is almost as derivative as Blue Jasmine, but this time Allen steals from himself, particularly his classics Radio Days and Bullets Over Broadway and his masterpiece Annie Hall. From Radio Days, he draws the wistful nostalgia for a lost entertainment world (in this case, 1930s Hollywood); from Bullets Over Broadway, a subplot involving the hero’s mobster brother; from Annie Hall, a rueful strain of love lost and fondly mourned.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a Bronx 20-something transplanted to the glamorous Hollywood of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerhouse agent who drops names like Ginger Rogers and Bette Davis the way lesser mortals use “and” and “the.” While Bobby is waiting for some sort of entry-level job with Phil (“We don’t want to emphasize the nepotism”), Phil assigns his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show Bobby the sights. Inevitably, Bobby falls for Vonnie. (One of Café Society’s surprises is how credible that is: Stewart blossoms under Allen’s direction—she has never been as interesting as she is here.)
At Bobby’s first advance, Vonnie gently shoots him down—she’s seeing somebody. We soon learn—and Bobby eventually learns—that the someone is Uncle Phil himself, waffling between staying with his wife Karen (Sheryl Lee) and leaving her for Vonnie. Just as Bobby resolves to marry Vonnie himself and take her home to New York, he learns the truth, and the romantic triangle resolves itself with Bobby losing out.
Back home in New York, Bobby becomes the manager of a nightclub owned by his shady brother Ben (Corey Stoll). He meets and marries a blonde beauty with the same name—Veronica—as his lost love (Blake Lively, thanklessly wasted; in a way it would have made more sense if she and Kristen Stewart had switched roles). At home Bobby is distantly attentive; at work he’s as aloof and urbane as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
Then, one night—of all the gin joints in all the world, Vonnie and her husband Phil walk into Bobby’s.
In Jesse Eisenberg Woody Allen has found the perfect actor to play the kind of role for which Allen himself is now too old. Eisenberg’s diffident rhythms and vocal fluidity fit Allen’s lines better than almost any other—Kenneth Branagh, Owen Wilson, Jason Biggs—who has tried to shove his feet into those shoes. Café Society is trifling but likeable; it echoes many of Woody’s greatest hits, but in a way that evokes pleasure more than it does disappointment.