Café Society is surprisingly ambitious by the standards of late-period Woody Allen — a veritable epic taking in a broad swath of a young man’s life and charting his progress from wide-eyed innocent to cold, confident operator. But that’s also why the film, in some senses, could only have been made in Allen’s later years. It features the usual “Woody Surrogate,” the type of character who would once have been played by the writer/director himself. But it’s hard to imagine Allen the actor ever showing the kind of range Jesse Eisenberg does here, playing a nice Jewish kid from New York who goes to Hollywood in the 1930s, has his heart broken and then grows up.
As Bobby Dorfman, Eisenberg honors some of the nebbishy mannerisms we’ve come to expect from these Woody Surrogates, but he never lets the familiar gestures and inflections overwhelm his performance. This is a person, not a persona, one who gives emotional weight to the early scenes. Newly arrived in Tinseltown, Bobby gets a gofer job thanks to his hotshot agent uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), and promptly falls for Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Although she insists that she has a boyfriend, Vonnie continues to grow closer to Bobby. That boyfriend, it turns out, is Bobby’s own uncle Phil, who keeps telling her he'll leave his wife but never gets around to it. Vonnie is torn: She’s falling for this young man, but she does love her older paramour, too.
Eisenberg is solid. But that doesn’t stop Stewart from blowing him out of the water. And the film works best when only we in the audience are privy to Vonnie’s dilemma — when the camera fixes on the quiet dance of shame and uncertainty on Stewart’s face. It’s a surprisingly physical performance; Vonnie's indecision practically consumes her. The young man's inevitable disillusionment is familiar and touching, to be sure, but hers is transfixing. We want to see more of her.
Certainly more than Allen gives us. After the revelations come out, Bobby returns to New York, and the film bops blithely along, as if its creator were unsure what's interesting about it. We see Bobby go into business with his gangster brother, covering his hurt with success and power. There’s also a whole narrative tangent involving Bobby’s brother and a mysterious murder, and the corrosive effect of guilt on his loved ones — a subplot that recalls Crimes and Misdemeanors but never achieves the same gravity or urgency.
The film is on firmer ground when it focuses on Bobby’s romantic longing: He never forgets Vonnie, and she never forgets him. Even after Bobby meets Veronica (a radiant Blake Lively), smoothly courts her and starts a family of his own, the memory of his first love haunts him. And for all the narrative flab and slapdash subplots, there is power in Allen’s depiction of the elemental pull between two people over the years — a theme that reaches back to Annie Hall.
The film’s imagery matches its ambition, to some extent. Café Society was shot by the great Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Reds, Apocalypse Now), and the collaboration has benefited both director and cinematographer: You can sense Allen really thinking about visual storytelling for the first time in a long while, and Storaro’s always-elegant lighting makes even the most basic two-shots pop. But the transaction goes the other way, too: Storaro’s recent work has been gorgeous and impeccable, but also stultifyingly artificial. Here, he seems freer, looser, the images not as chillingly precise as they were in, say, Carlos Saura’s Flamenco, Flamenco or Goya in Bordeaux. Lovely visuals, terrific performances, renewed ambition: There’s enough good in Café Society to make it worth your while — and also to make you wish it were better.