Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in Café Society (Sabrina Lantos/Gravier Productions)

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in Café Society (Sabrina Lantos/Gravier Productions)

For his latest, Woody Allen delivers a broad pastiche of the 1930s. Twentysomething Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) wants to make it big in Hollywood, so he heads west, leaving his working-class Brooklyn family behind. His uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a big-time agent who positively oozes sleaze (he doesn’t go a single scene without a bout of name-dropping), takes Bobby under his wing, and Bobby soon falls for lovely Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a secretary at Phil’s agency, though she warns him that she’s got a boyfriend. The rub? Vonnie’s beau is Bobby’s married uncle, who’s been stringing Vonnie along for months, telling her he’ll leave his wife.

What follows is a fairly tepid story of love, longing, and regret, and one we’ve seen from Allen many times before—though this is a much gentler look at the West Coast than we’ve seen before; Allen fans will remember his contemptuous version of LA from Annie Hall. While Allen pokes fun at the superficiality and Bobby eventually decides that Hollywood’s not for him, this is a fairly affectionate portrait of the city. Sun-kissed scenes of Vonnie and Bobby sightseeing and romping on the beach add a sweet and light quality, and the cynicism is kept on low boil.

The story jumps back to the East Coast periodically for updates on Bobby’s family (they’re what Granny Hall would call real Jews): his bickering parents (a hilarious Jeanine Berlin and Ken Stott); his sister, Evelyn (Sari Lennick); and his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). These scenes call to mind Radio Days, Allen’s nostalgia-inducing look at the Great Depression. Sight gags abound—arguments between Bobby’s parents, Ben’s mob associates calmly disposing of bodies—and the scenes that take place here are much stronger than those in Hollywood.

Channeling the director, with tics and neuroses galore, Eisenberg manages to be endearing and even funny at times, though neither he nor Stewart is strong enough to carry the picture. While charming and quite radiant, Stewart lacks real presence. She has a light, airy quality; when breaking hearts or starting a new relationship, she’s casual, almost as though she were in a romcom, but she never matches the genuine angst that Carell and Eisenberg convey. As for Blake Lively, whose character, the voluptuous blonde Veronica, turns this love triangle into something of a love parallelogram, the less said the better; she’s entirely forgettable.

With Allen’s personal life in the news so often, it’s perhaps inevitable that viewers will see parallels between Phil’s struggle and the director’s own life; a scene in which several of the Dorfmans debate the ethics of Phil’s marital decision could be straight out of any Internet comments section on the filmmaker. (The line “The heart wants what it wants” thankfully doesn’t make its way in.)

While this is generally a lukewarm effort, there are a few bright spots. Bobby’s predictably awkward attempt at bedding a first-time prostitute will elicit chuckles, and Carell and Parker Posey, playing one of Phil’s Hollywood friends, infuse energy in their scenes. Overall, however, the work never quite hits the mark; this is one for die-hard Allen devotees.

Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, and Edward Walson
Released by Amazon Studios/Lionsgate
USA. 96 min. Rated PG-13
With Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Sari Lennick, and Ken Stott