True to the “post-‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ law” that every third film’s a winner, Woody Allen rings the bell (after the stinkers “Irrational Man” and “Magic in the Moonlight”) with “Café Society,” a nostalgic nod to growing up a Jew in New York City and the dawn of the Hollywood studio era. It’s a return to the director’s roots and a clear bit of personal therapy. At the core, however, burns idealism, longing and the modulation of one’s own personal views over time.
Our protagonist, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), an impassioned nebbish from the Bronx with dreams of grandeur, possesses the right seeding of an Allen alter-ego. Given he’s a young man living in a cramped post-Depression apartment with a yenta-lite mom (an excellent Jeannie Berlin), Bobby heads to Tinseltown, where Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is an agent to the stars and hobnobs with the likes of Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers and Errol Flynn. We never meet any of these icons like we did in “Midnight in Paris,” but Phil talks to them often on the telephone as Bobby sits longingly across from him in Phil’s big office, hoping his mother’s brother will toss him a bone and give him a job.
Being extremely in demand but obliged to family, Phil asks his assistant Vonnie (Kristin Stewart) to show Bobby around. The first thing the two do is tool around town and gaze at the stars’ mansions – namely Joan Crawford’s – and it’s quickly obvious that Bobby, who’s just recently notched an awkward experience with a Jewish call girl and is clearly not skilled with women, is smitten. Problem is, Vonnie’s already spoken for by a man of stature who, for all his admirable reputation, isn’t around much. As this is heartless Hollywood, it doesn’t take long for revelations and complications to upend the applecart and send Bobby back in New York. Eventually he regains his footing by running a nightclub with his brother Benny (Corey Stoll), a feared gangster with a warm demeanor. In short, Benny’s a lethal blend, smart, loyal and a master at strong-arm tactics. The irony here is that Stoll recently played a straight-laced prosecutor who helps take down Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass.” It’s also a stroke of casting genius, as whenever Stoll (as with Berlin) is on the screen, the radiance of the film shines that much brighter.
The transition back across the country turns out to be a big win. Allen recreates the opulence of Hollywood scrumptiously, and it’s handsomely framed by the great Vittorio Storaro, who shot “Last Tango in Paris” and “Apocalypse Now.” While Allen proves adroit at skewering celebrity and icon worship out west, it’s readily evident he’s more at home in jazzy cafes delving into the idiosyncrasies of growing up Jewish. And as was the case with his “Husbands and Wives,” the central love triangle carries an eerily familiar tang: There’s an undercurrent of Allen’s personal matters with his former partner and her adopted-daughter-turned-filmmaker’s-bride.
It’s amazing just how much Allen packs into the film’s lithe, barely-over-90-minutes frame. It’s effortless and fluent, like a great jazz improvisation, and in all that, Blake Lively shows up late in the game and takes on a pivotal role as well. If you didn’t check the playbill, that may come as something of a shock. The statuesque actress may be far from the perilous jaws of “The Shallows,” but the seas she finds herself in here are just as vicious. (More people actually die in “Cafe Society” than in “The Shallows.”) By the end, Allen’s central construct of Bobby and Vonnie and their simple-life romantic idealism becomes the least winning aspect of this era-adoring rewind. As we’re all romantics to varying degrees, the pining pair are pleasant to hang with on their many furtive “Before Sunrise” moments, but when big Phil or Benny or momma Dorfman enter the stage, true matters of life, passion and the reality of choices made – not just wistful dreams or wanting more when you already have much – hits you in the kishka.