The only sign that Woody Allen is slowing down in “Café Society” is his own voiceover for the film. Telling this engrossing story of thwarted romance in 1930s Los Angeles and Manhattan, Allen supplies the narration, and in doing so sounds every bit as old and tired as I presume he must be.
The story, however, is not old, or tired. In telling a story that ends neither happily nor tragically, Allen’s voice gives the film the matter-of-fact restraint that is so effective.
Jesse Eisenberg plays a shy Jewish man, but finally transcends the Woody Allen surrogate problem that runs through many Allen films not starring Allen himself. Eisenberg, as lovelorn New York transplant Bobby Dorfman, creates a full character that is particularly interesting as he grows up into a more confident and wealthy man.
He moves to Los Angeles to start a career and hopes to get help from his uncle, a powerful agent played perfectly by Steve Carell, who generates a fast-talking confidence worthy of Martin Scorsese at times, while skillfully projecting a confused and vulnerable side.
A love triangle forms around his winsome secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart), an intellectual who claims to disdain the glitz of Hollywood. Stewart’s inner conflict is well-depicted by an actress sometimes criticized for a lack of expression. She’s great here. Bobby’s earnest courtship of Veronica is contrasted with her secret affair with a powerful married man, and the outcome propels Bobby back home to New York City.
It is here that the film’s family drama plays out, as Allen brings Bobby’s two siblings into the story. The always excellent Corey Stoll plays Bobby’s older brother, a gangster whose successful nightclub makes Bobby’s fortune.
The family’s acceptance or denial of his crimes comes to a head, and even the most dramatic events are told with an inevitability that is melancholy yet somehow comforting. It is sad and mature, two qualities that often reside together.
This is not a frothy delight along the lines of Allen’s delectable time-travel fantasy “Midnight in Paris.” “Café Society” is nostalgic in setting yet candid in tone. The events are predictable, but that is partially the point. The sense that life is a story being told, that we are not the authors, is pervasive and emphasized throughout by the old, tired voice of Woody Allen himself, telling us the things we already knew.
“Café Society” is currently available to rent.