Café Society, too, pulses with a palpable longing for that which was and will never be again. It is Allen’s love letter to Old Hollywood, or more precisely it’s another of Allen’s love letters to Old Hollywood. Set in the 1930s—the decade, perhaps not uncoincidentally, of Allen’s birth—it revolves around Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg, serving again as an unsubtle stand-in for Allen himself), who leaves his home in the Bronx for Los Angeles, in search of a new job and a new life. Bobby relies on his uncle, the high-powered agent-to-the-stars Phil Stern (Steve Carell), to help him to settle in; Phil accomplishes this mostly by introducing Bobby to Vonnie (Stewart), Phil’s languid, limpid secretary. Bobby immediately falls in love with her. She does not return the sentiment. He goads her, though, into befriending him, and then into dating him, until … let’s just say that there’s a complication. Vonnie’s heart belongs to someone else.
Café Society is a slight little love story, its central triangle made slightly more complicated by stories of the mob—Bobby’s brother (Corey Stoll, oozing charm) is a New York gangster—and by many, many not-terribly-funny jokes about being Jewish (“when a Jew cooks something,” Bobby says, solemnly, “it’s always overcooked, because they want to kill all the germs”). The film’s stars, as will so often be the case with an Allen film, give game performances (especially, this time around, Blake Lively, who plays another love interest for Bobby and makes the most of a sorely underwritten role). And everyone—as will so often be another case with an Allen film—seems, you know, really happy to be there.
But for all its beauty and its star power, the movie never elevates to anything beyond a kind of storyboard sketch. There’s love, and loss, and betrayal, and ego, and death ... yet none of these epic themes ever leap from the screen as full or human or even interesting. Everything here is beautiful and meaningless. Perhaps that is Allen’s point—his films have long been interested in existentialism and, lately, nihilism—but nothing in Café Society suggests anything resembling a message or a conclusion or, indeed, an artist who has much to say beyond (as Phil observes at one point): “In matters of the heart, people do foolish things.”
They do. Yes. And while that’s a truism that has animated the output of artists from Shakespeare to Austen to Kanye, “matters of the heart” have never, really, been Allen’s strong suit. True, his films feature characters (men, mostly) doing foolish things because of love (dating inappropriate women, largely). As my colleague Sophie Gilbert pointed out last year:
In 1996, at the age of 61, he successfully wooed the 29-year-old Julia Roberts in Everyone Says I Love You, the year after he had an affair with Mira Sorvino’s 20-something prostitute in Mighty Aphrodite. In 1979’s Manhattan, Allen’s 40-something character, Isaac, dates a 17-year-old schoolgirl played by Mariel Hemingway (the film is believed to be based on Allen’s real-life experiences dating 16-year-old Stacey Nelkin, whom he met on the set of Annie Hall and dated while she was attending Stuyvesant High School).
But the subtle give-and-take that guides deep human connection? The stuff that so often makes for good rom-coms, and for good literature? Allen dabbles in it, certainly, but he tends to return, like a tuft-headed boomerang, to his comfort zones: allegory. Slapstick. Sketch. Even Annie Hall, perhaps Allen’s best film and certainly the one that catapulted him to fame, had to evolve into the rom-com that it would become. Allen’s original vision for the film, his aforementioned documentary points out, was that it would focus on Alvy, with Annie as a more minor character; it was only in editing, and because of Diane Keaton’s manic charisma, that the film’s iconic rom-com structure emerged.