It’s tough getting a handle on Woody Allen’s “Café Society.”
It’s not a drama, certainly. Its approach is too tangential and distant for any sort of emotional intensity.
But it’s not exactly a comedy, either. Despite a few chuckles there’s a noted paucity of laugh lines, and those bits of dialogue that do register are noteworthy, not for their hilarity, but rather for their weary resignation.
And despite being set in 1930s Hollywood, it has none of the nostalgic warmth of “Radio Days,” Allen’s memorable reverie about growing up in NYC in the glory days of radio.
So what does “Café Society” have going for it?
Well, good performances from Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively, spectacularly good cinematography from Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor”) and detailed production design courtesy of Allen’s frequent collaborator Santo Loquasto.
As the picture begins young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) has fled his suffocating home in the Bronx (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott are his bickering parents) to tackle life in wide-open Los Angeles. He hopes to get a job from his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a Hollywood agent who drops celebrity names with the frequency with which the rest of us use words like “a” and “the.”
Phil is so busy (or self-centered) that he keeps Bobby cooling his heels for weeks. (It must be noted that unlike your usual Allen protagonist, someone who’s hugely clever and bent on a career in the arts, Bobby is pretty much an average guy.)
Finally Phil sees the kid and assigns his girl Friday, Vonnie (Stewart), to show his nephew around Tinsel Town.
Between gawking at the homes of the stars, the two youngsters hit it off. But unbeknownst to Bobby, Vonnie is having an affair with a married man. This is no small roadblock to their relationship.
The second half of “Café Society” finds Bobby back in the Big Apple, where he goes to work running a posh nightclub for his big brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a charismatic gangster whose enemies frequently end up in the concrete foundations of Long Island construction projects.
Turns out Bobby is a pretty effective schmoozer, liked by the customers and loved by his wife Veronica (Lively), a sweet beauty he grabbed on her rebound from an ugly divorce. She’s probably better than he deserves.
Of course nothing is easy. Big brother Ben runs afoul of the law and finds himself on Death Row. And Bobby’s first love, Vonnie, shows up on the arm of her much older husband. This fans tiny sparks of the old Bobby/Vonnie relationship, but both of them know they’ve moved well beyond their youthful infatuation.
“Café Society” isn’t a mess. It’s just not particularly inspired.
Allen (who provides voiceover narration so lifeless I thought it was another actor doing a Woody Allen imitation) is content to recycle his long-standing themes and concerns without offering anything new. (Bobby has a brother-in-law, a philosopher, who becomes the movie’s moral voice.)
The high points come from Stewart, who has completely outgrown the irritating limitations of her “Twilight” roles, and Lively, a much-touted personality whose talents have up to now eluded me. But here she takes a nothing part and imbues it with gentle personality.
In its final moments “Café Society” achieves a bit of bittersweet grace, nailing the moment at which we realize we’re adults and that it’s time to sleep in the beds we’ve made.
But overall, nothing special.