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'Café Society' is a mixed bag for all its smoothness

Given director Woody Allen's backlog of movies already touching on similar themes, this film may not need to exist, but Steve Carell gives his best performance since 'Foxcatcher.'

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    'Café Society' stars Jesse Eisenberg (l.) and Kristen Stewart (r.).
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Like clockwork, Woody Allen, now 80, makes a movie a year. His latest, “Café Society,” is intermittently lovely and melancholic. Given his backlog of movies already touching on similar themes, I’m not sure this film absolutely needed to exist, but it has its moments. He’s made better movies; he’s also made far worse. 

Set in the Great Depression, it stars Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfman, a Brooklyn boy whose uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is a Hollywood agent with a galaxy of star clients. Making his way to Los Angeles at the instigation of his pushy parents (played very broadly and hilariously by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott), Bobby lands a low-level job in Phil’s agency and is instantly smitten by Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who, unknown to Bobby, is carrying on an affair with his married uncle. All he knows, at first, is that she is having boyfriend problems.

The farcical possibilities in this scenario are deftly handled. Since we know more about what’s going on in this world than do any of the characters, we can see the train wrecks coming a mile away. But Allen doesn’t milk his scenes for belly laughs, or for pathos. Hollywood, as shot in digital by the master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, has a soft, slightly molten glow. Most of the Hollywood people who inhabit this movie may be frenetic go-getters, but they are illuminated, almost tenderized, by the light.

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This is the first film Allen has directed predominantly in Los Angeles since “Annie Hall.” He’s been noticeably L.A.-averse in his career, but in “Café Society,” perhaps because it’s set in the past, what comes through is a nostalgia for Hollywood’s golden age. In a way, he’s just as gaga about that era as any starstruck movie buff. (It’s the same nostalgia that often informs the choice of incidental music in his movies, heavy on the Gershwin and Kern.) Perhaps, at his late age, any rancor Allen may harbor about the machinations of Hollywood has burned away. There’s an affectionate bemusement about the dream factory in “Café Society.” 

Eisenberg and Stewart have worked together before in films including “Adventureland,” and they have an easygoing rapport. I’ve grown a bit weary of Eisenberg’s staccato line readings and tensed-up body language, though. It’s all too similar from movie to movie, and it’s doubly annoying here since, as is often true of Allen’s actors, even the women, he seems to be mimicking the young Woody Allen. (Allen himself provides occasional voice-over narration.) Instead of watching a full-fledged performer, we appear to be watching a stand-in. 

Stewart, with her sensual combination of wised-up and innocent, does much to tamp down Eisenberg’s more frenetic actor’s tics. Still, the film’s love triangle would have benefited from a stronger romantic counterweight, especially since Carell, in his best performance since “Foxcatcher,” gives a definitive performance of a formidable man whose force field is punctured by true love.

The Hollywood scenes are balanced out when Bobby, disillusioned with Hollywood, moves back to New York and ends up running the swanky nightclub Café Society, owned by his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). Given what we’ve seen of him, it’s not clear why the insecure Bobby would be so adept at running this club. Neither does he seem to harbor any moral scruples about this underworld hangout. He says of Hollywood, “It’s really a kind of boring, nasty, dog-eat-dog industry.” Meanwhile, his brother is regularly dumping bodies in concrete coffins.

Bobby marries a lanky blonde beauty (Blake Lively) and they have a son, but Vonnie, as it turns out, is never far from his thoughts. When the two meet again, by accident, in the club, it’s to Allen’s credit that the aftermath is anything but predictable. “Café Society,” for all its smoothness, is a mixed bag, but its final scenes exhibit a ruefulness, and a sadness, that ring absolutely true. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material, and smoking.)

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