By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Woody Allen is tired.
And no wonder. He’s made a film a year (as director, writer, star or sometimes all three) ever since 1965. On occasion – to paraphrase what they used to say about Neil Simon (remember him?) – Allen’s made a movie even when he didn’t really have a movie to make.
Still, there’s something to be said for commitment and passion. And when it comes to the movies, Woody’s always had both.
In “Café Society,” the filmmaker is feeling nostalgic about Hollywood. Not the Hollywood he knows – or rather, the Hollywood he sliced and diced so expertly in “Annie Hall.”
He’s thinking Barbara Stanwyck and Errol Flynn, William Powell and Irene Dunne, Howard Hawks and Bette Davis. Think, a Turner Classic Movie Festival.
Set in the 1930s, “Café Society” divides its time between upscale Hollywood – swimming pools, movie stars – and upscale Manhattan – politicos, well-heeled mobsters.
We begin on the West Coast, at an impossibly glam party where uber-agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is expecting a call from Ginger Rogers. A call comes, but it’s not Fred Astaire’s better half; its Phil’s sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin, Elaine May’s daughter), who still lives in the Old Country … I mean, the Bronx.
Rose needs a favor. Her son Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is coming to L.A. to try his hand at … well … something. Can Phil help?
Sure. He gives Bobby the standard go-fer job. And since the kid doesn’t know anyone in town, Phil throws in one of his assistants, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to keep him company.
It’s a nice gesture, meant just as it sounds: Vonnie and Bobby hang out together, with her taking him to the homes of the rich and famous as well as to little out-of-the-way dives that are more to her (and his) liking.
Not surprisingly, he falls for her. But she’s been up front since the beginning: She’s already involved with someone, a journalist, she explains, who does a lot of traveling.
Anyway, a sadder but wiser Bobby returns home where he becomes a kind of East Coast version of Phil, thanks to his brother, a mobster-cum-nightclub owner.
Nebbish no more, Bobby takes over bro’s swanky new club and morphs into a mix of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” and Joel Grey in “Cabaret.” With a dash of Gene Wilder and even Woody himself.
And then, of all the gin joints in all the world, in walks….
“Café Society” is certainly not “Casablanca” revisited. No real sacrifices are made, no “La Marseillaise,” nobody says goodbye on an airport tarmac, murmuring immortal lines.
But Allen is trying to make a film about choices. The road – or would that be the broad? – not taken. At its core, “Café Society” is all about, What If? Or maybe, If Only….
Despite Vittorio Storaro’s luscious cinematography – this is one of the best-looking pictures Woody’s ever made – there’s something threadbare about “Café Society.” The funny lines are around, but there just aren’t that many of them. And story itself lacks spark or focus or something.
Essentially, the picture feels somehow incomplete – as if Allen had a couple of good ideas he wanted to pursue, but just kind of slacked off and put all the half-finished stories in the same film. Maybe he should’ve made the entire film about Carell. Or Eisenberg. Or, for that matter, Stewart, since it’s really her character who has the most complicated character arc.
To its credit, “Café Society” isn’t dishonest and it isn’t lazy. It just isn’t one of Allen’s best.