The urge to psychoanalyze Woody Allen through his films wouldn’t be so strong if he didn’t make it so easy. As breezy and feather-light as his scripts can be, they still feel uncomfortably revealing, because he returns so often to the same ideas. There’s an aggressive, uncompromising stubbornness to the way he keeps making movies about weary older men pursuing venal, shallow, but willing younger women. His neurotic, fussy protagonists — the ones he so often used to play himself — eternally play out his concerns about depression, dissatisfaction, and death. And his obsessive mythologizing of the past comes up again and again. In his latest, Café Society, all three of these familiar touchstones are back in play. Even when he’s innovating, as he is here, with his first digitally shot picture and his first feature-length collaboration with Apocalypse Now cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Allen wears his usual preoccupations around his neck like an albatross.
In this case, they’re practically the only thing keeping the entire film from blowing away on the slightest breeze. There isn’t much to Café Society, which leans heavily on Allen’s narration to force a story over what’s otherwise mostly a series of bantery conversations and montages set to jazz, boogie, and cabaret performances. The film is set in the 1930s, this time with Jesse Eisenberg in the stuttery, fussy central Woody Allen role. His character, Bobby Dorfman, is a callow Brooklyn kid who comes to Los Angeles to exploit the connections of his big-time producer uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and get a job in the film industry. Through Phil, he meets small-town secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and falls for her, not realizing she’s already seeing the much older, married Phil on the side. While she angsts over which one of them to pick, Bobby’s career takes off, amid Hollywood glamour that’s much more suggested than seen. Many names are dropped — Ginger Rogers, Howard Hawks, Joel McCrea, Spencer Tracy — but unlike in Allen’s ode to the literary scene of the 1920s, Midnight In Paris, no one attempts to play them onscreen. They’re just lofty ideals, among the only ideals Bobby, Phil, and Vonnie have.
Where Blue Jasmine was Allen's unmistakable riff on A Streetcar Named Desire, Café Society feels like his attempt to set up The Great Gatsby. Like Jay Gatsby, Bobby enjoys immense personal, social, and professional success while mooning over the one woman he thinks would give it meaning. But narratively, that's about all there is to Café Society, which plays out as a series of largely disconnected vignettes. Allen as narrator has to explain to audiences what Bobby is doing and feeling and why. His sweeping statements about Bobby's discontent don't much match the character's onscreen behavior, as the film follows him through minor things like greeting a string of acquaintances at the ritzy New York nightclub he takes over, or touring Los Angeles with Vonnie, looking at movie stars' houses. And over and over, Allen falls back on lengthy Amelie-style lists of characters, exploring the peccadilloes of broadly drawn glitterati who never become relevant past the moment of their introduction. There's a major disconnect between action and emotion in Café Society: Bobby can't have the woman he loves, and doesn't make much effort to win her. That's a strange way to approach a love story.
But Allen's characters are often more internal and philosophical than action-oriented, and Bobby is no exception. He sulks passively about Vonnie while Allen fills the film with side business: squabbles between Bobby's working-class New York parents, Rose (Jeannie Berlin) and Marty (Ken Stott); a series of murders by his unrepentant gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll); Phil's monologues about the movie business. There's a tremendously repetitive, unfunny, and narratively pointless scene between Bobby and a prostitute calling herself Candy (Anna Camp); he hires her to come to his LA hotel room, but instantly loses interest when he finds out she's Jewish, a first-timer, and prone to weeping. And yet she keeps begging him for sex, because she promised herself she'd follow through. The film is filled with odd reminders that many of the characters on-screen are Jewish, with Rose telling Marty he "looks stupid" because he doesn't have "a traditional Jewish head," or a beautiful new acquaintance telling Bobby she finds Jews "exotic and mysterious." But those references don't rise to the level of comedy or commentary. Like the movie star name-dropping, they're pro forma, just a case of Allen poking listlessly at his favorite topics without really engaging.
At least Café Society looks marvelous. Allen's modern films are invariably beautifully lit and shot, and Storaro in particular gets a burnished gleam out of the characters' endless beige suits, wood-paneled rooms, and orange-hued surroundings. The visuals are as warm as the banter is cold. And the cast does what they can to heat up the screen through sheer personal energy. Eisenberg isn't doing anything new for him — Bobby is a humble kid, but he's nervous and yammering in a way that plays directly into both his and Allen's usual types. But Steve Carell is a draw as a Hollywood big-timer who's simultaneously a mensch and a schmuck. Stewart is surprisingly vibrant and energetic, and Allen, who often writes young-women characters as predatory, mechanical, or painfully naïve, actually seems to have some sympathy for her, if not a clear idea of what motivates her. Parker Posey, who keeps popping up randomly as a family friend, is breathy and mannered in a way that suggests a much wackier, broader, more forceful film.
And Stoll steals his scenes with a broad, easygoing verbal muscularity that’s more comfortable and lived-in than anything else in the film. He's nearly as much fun here as he was in Midnight In Paris. Allen makes an odd choice with Stoll's character in Café Society by deciding to glamorize 1930s gangsters just as much as he glamorizes 1930s filmmaking; Ben's many killings are played for laughs, not horror. But in that sense, at least, Allen is just following Hollywood's own tendency to look at rich criminals as a kind of hallowed elite.
Mostly, though, he's following his own predictable interests, in his old consistent way. Café Society gives the illusion of plot movement because the dialogue rattles along so quickly, and there's so much movement, from coast to coast and scene to scene. But the important movement of the plot mostly happens inside the characters, and there's a thoroughly Allen-ish melancholy hanging under the whole process.
Like so many latter-day Allen movies, Café Society feels like a barely disguised window into Allen's own sheltered mindset. Bobby is rich, successful, famous, and even loved, but he still can't find satisfaction or contentment. If only the film explored that idea with more commitment, depth, or sympathy, Allen might have been able to make it relatable for other people. Instead, it feels like the kind of statements Allen so often makes: personal, but not approachable, and playful, but not entirely fun. Café Society is an incredibly pretty movie, and a generally unobjectionable one. But like so many Allen films, it feels like it was made primarily for his therapist, and letting the rest of the world in to see it and make their own diagnoses is an afterthought.