Woody Allen has outdone himself at age 80. Not only has he kept up his blistering pace of pushing out a movie a year, but this time he's really delivered two films, only loosely connected by jangling neurosis.
"Café Society," starring Jesse Eisenberg as the sweet but awkward Allen stand-in, is a meandering look at lost love that is split between the highball-sipping, fur-wearing elite nightclubs of Manhattan and Hollywood in the 1930s. We never spend enough time in either location to really care about anyone there and so the film comes off disjointed and unconnected.
Allen seems both intrigued and repulsed by all the glamour and never keeps a consistent tone, just as his leading man stumbles trying to achieve coherence, seemingly alternating in every other scene from nebbish, stuttering clown to passive-aggressive bully to suave sophisticate.
Allen narrates his own tale, but mostly tells the audience exactly what we're already seeing, undercutting his actors. There are a few gems in the script (including the line: "Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer") but the screenwriter is conflicted over whether he's writing a noir, a satire or a romantic comedy.
Allen's cinematographer is three-time Academy Award winner Vittorio Storaro, who combines with costume designer Suzy Benzinger and production designer Santo Loquasto, to recreate lush, gorgeous spaces filled with black ties and shimming gowns, all elegantly lit. The soundtrack is also super, consisting of classics like "Jeepers Creepers" and "The Lady is a Tramp." Basically, the look and sound is jaw-dropping; the story at the center is ho-hum.
The first half follows the New York-born Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) as he flees West for adventure in Tinseltown. His uncle (a very good Steve Carell) is a high-powered yet insecure movie agent who puts him under his wing.
A broken romantic triangle sends Bobby back to New York pining for a lost love in the film's second half. He becomes a cool, glad-handing nightclub manager — odd, since he's supposed to be so self-conscious and internal — for his gangster brother (Corey Stoll, hitting the wiseguy bit a little hard). Bobby gets married to Blake Lively (whose job here is to simply wear dresses fabulously) and has a family.
What connects these stories is Kristen Stewart, a former assistant of Bobby's uncle who walks into the New York club one day like a ghost from the past, a scene as melodramatic as it sounds. Stewart is good at being cold; not so good here as the source of anyone's wild adoration.
The film, which never really catches a full head of stream, sort of peters out by the end. There are some wistful glances and the notion that people do foolish things. And that's about it.
In "Café Society," the martinis are dry, stunning women fall for weirdos and irritating people are shot in the head and dumped in concrete, but all in good fun. We learn that men and women can love two people at once, and good people can cheat. No one really grows up. Even hookers are funny.
You'll end up feeling about the film like Bobby about Los Angeles — "half-bored, half-fascinated." And that's a pretty poor average, even for two poorly stitched-together films.
What: "Café Society." Directed by Woody Allen. An Amazon Studios release from Lionsgate
With: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll
Star rating (out of four):
MPAA rating: PG-13 — some material may not inappropriate for children under 13 — for "some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking"
Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes
Playing at: Images Cinema (Williamstown); Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington)