Director Woody Allen’s latest film “Cafe Society” opens today at Zinema 2. True to form, Allen weaves humor with love, modern “tragedy,” success and neuroses in this film starring Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.
It’s 1930s Hollywood, and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) flies in from the Bronx, hoping to work for his powerful uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who sets Bobby up with his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) as a tour guide.
Allen is quick to play up Hollywood stereotypes. Phil makes his nephew wait weeks before he’ll see him. When they meet, they’re interrupted with incessant phone calls, Phil gets Bobby’s name wrong, and it’s easy to subscribe to the one-dimensional setting.
And it’s Vonnie who brings it back to Earth when she shows Bobby the mansions of Beverly Hills. She says she feels bad for people who need to live there, saying she needs to be by the beach. It’s refreshing to Bobby and the viewer. Soon after, Bobby’s in unrequited love with she who has a boyfriend.
Relational snafus are a theme Allen visits often, but in “Cafe Society,” he peppers in enough fast-paced violence, questions of Jewish-ness and naivete to keep it entertaining.
Another common theme in “Cafe Society” is expectation. What’s Jewish enough, what’s Hollywood enough. In one scene, Bobby’s mother says to her husband: “You don’t pray, you don’t fast and you don’t have a typical Jewish head — you’re stupid.” Doling insights through extremes is an Allen specialty, and it’s startling and laughable.
Eisenberg belongs in the amalgam of Allen’s main male characters that seemingly are Allen himself. He portrays Bobby as nervous, fast-talking, bold and direct, but his character has an endearing air of vulnerability.
“I keep deluding myself,” he says of his pursuit of Vonnie. “If I have the right wine …” he’ll somehow get the girl, and it’s easy to root for his naive quest.
“You have this deer-in-headlights quality,” Vonnie says to Bobby, and she’s spot on. It’s charming.
As Vonnie, it takes a while for Kristen Stewart to shed her Kristen-Stewart-ness despite some glamour-shot lighting. Stewart is so contemporary that it’s hard buy her as a 1930’s secretary. But in the deluge of Allen-esque dialogue, Stewart vanishes and her appealing character emerges.
Steve Carell’s Phil is subtly reminiscent of Michael Scott from “The Office,” which gives his character a bloated likability. And the supporting players are solid with Parker Posey, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll and more. The old Hollywood setting is meticulous, right down to characters chain smoking at a pool party. It’s jarring to a modern-day viewer to see them smoking outside direct proximity of an ash can. The costumes and set designs all felt authentic, but that’s on par for this writer/director.
One con is these themes of boyish longing, death, vitality and id can feel slightly exhaustive toward the end. It’s a go-to for Allen, but “Cafe Society” feels a bit more self-aware.
“Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined one is no bargain,” says one character. It’s like Allen’s shrugging at the audience.
And this film feels like it has more meta bits like this than the norm: “Celebrate life like it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right.”
Allen often plays a part in his films. Here, he’s omnipresent and his physical absence feels foreboding. His narration sounds aged and tired, and there’s a sadness in that.
“You were this awkward, romantic, frantic guy trying to find himself,” Vonnie says to Bobby. And at 80, Allen may still be looking.
For fans or nonfans, “Cafe Society” does transport a viewer to a different time. It’s bright and dark with just enough humor, charm and commentary. It’s a thoughtful delight that’s worth seeing.
Now showing: Zinema 2
Rating: PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking