‘Cafe Society’
Director:
Woody Allen
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

In his early years as a stand-up comic, Woody Allen had a joke about the one time he got high: “The cops had to come and get me: I broke two teeth trying to give a hickey to the Statue of Liberty.” Jump 50 years and we have “Cafe Society,” which at one point sets up what could be another inspired weed joke. It’s the 1930s and a New York society gal played by Blake Lively is asked if she enjoys smoking the reefer. “I don’t like dope,” she replies. “It messes me up.” 

And that’s it. Granted, this isn’t a funny character, but it’s indicative of a filmmaker who has, for the most part (though not entirely), lost his gift for words. He even paraphrases a couple old one-liners and — this being partly set in Golden Age Hollywood — only exerts himself when exhaustively name-dropping seemingly every single famous movie star of the period. (You can bring a checklist.) He’s come full circle: Now he’s the one who needs some talented upstart to punch up his copy.

But all is not bleak; far from it. If Woody’s no longer trying with dialogue, he’s still experimenting with plot structure and — most shocking of all, given the comfort food blandness of his visuals — camerawork. (The overqualified rock star cinematographer this time is the legendary Vittorio Storaro, whose camera snakes and sails around the actors instead of just shooting them talking.) Like so many of his late period works, “Cafe Society” can be creaky and undercooked. But there are enough ideas here that suggest he’s almost onto something and might have gotten there if he kept pushing. In fact, maybe he got close enough: He’s made something that toes the line between sentimental and pitiless. 

One of his too rare comedy-dramas (let’s burn the term “dramedy” to the ground), “Cafe Society” finds Jesse Eisenberg making his second Woody go as Bobby, a young man from New York who’s come to Los Angeles to bug his high-powered studio exec uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), for a job. The workaholic Phil can’t be bothered and shruggily rewards Bobby with a gofer job. That means spending time with Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). She has some secret boyfriend, but the two fall in love anyway. Only later do we learn the boyfriend is Phil. 

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Just as Woody seems to be revving himself for his own riff on “The Apartment,” he pulls out the rug. Vonnie chooses Phil, and the action abruptly relocates to New York, where a heartbroken Bobby finds himself with a new job and a new love (Lively). It’s at this point that what seemed like a nice, clean, classic Woody Allen love story gets unduly busy. There are sudden time jumps, some of them gutting: The leap from Bobby licking his wounds to having a new gal pal is so severe and surprising that it’s reminiscent of a trick often used by the great, brusque French filmmaker Philippe Garrel. 

Other times it simply seems sloppy. Subplots materialize out of nowhere then take center stage. Some follow characters we assumed were minor, like Bobby’s gangster brother (Corey Stoll, in his latest bad hairpiece) or an anguished brother-in-law played with movie-stealing nervousness by stage actor Stephen Kunken, both of whom get involved in a leftfield murder plot that wraps up early.

“Cafe Society” can seem like a shambles, with inspired bits and fine turns peppered over a storyline that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere — until it does. As in so many of his films, characters change and love fades, but the movie's unusual, meandering structure makes us feel that in our gut by constantly changing direction, often far away from what we thought was the main story. As we get all manner of digressions about night clubs, Bobby’s bickering parents (Ken Stott and the great Jeannie Berlin) and homicide, Bobby tries to forget the love that could not happen. So much screentime elapses that the viewer may forget, too. By the time it belatedly brings Vonnie back into the picture, their fling is a fuzzy memory. In “Annie Hall” Alvy Singer sifted through his memories, afraid to let them go; Bobby wants to purge them from his brain, and ultimately can’t.

This all builds to a graceful, bittersweet close, one of Woody’s best, which makes fine use of gauzy Kristen Stewart close-ups. Everything clicks in this final scene. It’s a film that seems better in retrospect, like a magic trick that seemed dodgy but reveals itself with its killer prestige. We can’t forget (or maybe forgive) its sins, even as we glom onto the things that worked, like his two leads. They don’t have the same luxury as most Woody leads, who tend to splutter their feelings out in chatter. They’re quiet and evasive, rarely saying what they mean, forcing us to watch their body language to suss out the deep truth. It’s a frustrating film — like a gorgeous mansion still overrun with scaffolding. And yet it’s still clear it’s a beaut.

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