Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” opens with a garish blast of aquamarine: a tropical-hued art deco tableau set at a cocktail party thrown by a Hollywood agent in the 1930s. As stars and suits name-drop over highballs, bathed in the reflected turquoise light of a swimming pool, viewers may well wonder whether they’ve stepped into the wrong movie. Blue? In a Woody Allen film? Where are the signature dollops of amber, those scenes that look as if they were carved from a soft pat of unsalted butter?
Oh, they’re coming. Indeed, part of the attraction of “Cafe Society” is how Allen collaborates with the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro — a first-time outing for the two, and the first time Allen has agreed to shoot digitally, instead of on film. It’s a win-lose proposition. There are scenes in the film — which takes place in Los Angeles and New York — in which the suntanned characters look as if they’ve been hewn from the same mahogany-toned paneling of their office walls. But there are moments of transporting beauty as well, such as the startling opening sequence and, later, at a Manhattan nightclub, with graceful traveling shots that swoop and dip and glide among the silk-draped swells.
Its arresting visual design aside, “Cafe Society” is upper-middle-late-period Allen, a modestly diverting ditty that will never go down as one of his greats. (But, as most can agree, Allen at his most middling is still better than many hacks at their best.)
Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, a young man who arrives in L.A. hoping to break into showbiz by way of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a big-time agent. When Phil fobs Bobby off on one of his office assistants, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the two young people strike up a natural friendship. Then Bobby falls in love and complications ensue, the whole megillah bringing Bobby back to where he came from: Manhattan, where he returns to the bosom of his overbearing parents and petty-criminal brother, Ben (Corey Stoll).
The story of “Cafe Society” is full of incident but essentially wispy. The film is most enjoyable simply as a collection of sprightly, astute performances, especially Eisenberg’s dyspeptically smooth interpretation of a role that echoes Allen’s own neurotic persona — the filmmaker actually narrates the action here — and that allows for a canny physical transformation, as Bobby becomes older and wiser. Jeannie Berlin brings impeccable timing to an otherwise tired portrayal of the “classic” Jewish mother. Despite the stereotypes in play, at least one of her lines — about Christianity as an eschatological racket — might be the funniest in the picture.
As for Stewart, she’s without doubt an alluring screen presence; you can’t take your eyes off of her. But she seems too smoky-eyed and wearied by life to play the direct, uncynical Vonnie. It’s like asking Ida Lupino to play a role written for Jean Arthur. Not only are her cadences and gestures anachronistic, but some of her lines feel jarringly out of place as well, such as when Vonnie inexplicably refers to Joan Crawford in the past tense, or when characters say things like “I know where you’re coming from” or “I can’t get my mind around this.”
Allen fans will recognize the contours of his taste and the imagined universe he inhabits. It’s a universe of caricatures and hyperbole: harping mothers and neurotic sons; soignee WASP’s nests; and dollhouse-like enclaves untouched by outside realities, but mired in moral questions about love, character, mortality and fidelity. Those quandaries are played for laughs, even though they have the power to take people down.
With each succeeding year, Allen’s insular version of the past feels more eccentric. Depending on the viewer, it’s either happily reassuring or strangely out of touch. There are moments in “Cafe Society” that unmistakably echo similar ones in Allen’s own life, including a joke about Vonnie and how she fits into Bobby’s family tree. (A similarly resonant joke involving Errol Flynn is just plain icky.) Viewers may laugh, wince or do both simultaneously. Just as we can take or leave his particular form of honeyed, hyper-ethnic nostalgia, we’re free to read in whatever we please to the ethical problems that torment his characters. It’s clear by now that he doesn’t care. It’s Allen’s world. We can choose to live in it or not, but he, for one, will never change.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking. 96 minutes.