Linguists and anthropologists have long tussled over the nature of humor, but most theories suggest an element of the unexpected is key. It’s surprise that makes us laugh, when a line of thought derails abruptly or when the particular suddenly trumps the general or when we fall into a bait-and switch and delight at having been momentarily fooled. But how can we ever expect to find anything unfamiliar in the work of the famously prolific, set-your-watch-by-him Woody Allen, now in his fifth decade of filmmaking, especially as Allen seems to take almost perverse pleasure in restricting himself to his pet themes and milieus, his pet periods and pet characters? But, semi-miraculously, it seems, in the endless combination and recombination of those elements, sometimes they can click into place, to give us something that can never be termed “new”, but that somehow makes a virtue of its familiarity. Praise be, that’s largely what happens in “Cafe Society,” Allen’s most untroublesome film in a while, his most charming in years and his most beautiful to look at, maybe ever.
It’s a story that mixes various parts of the Allen back catalogue to varying degrees of success: set in the 1930s it follows Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), youngest son of perhaps the most New-York-Jewish family ever committed to screen, as he heads to Hollywood to work for his hotshot agent Uncle Phil (Steve Carell). Bobby falls in love with Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), only to return to New York to run a nightclub together with his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), when she leaves him for her older ex-boyfriend. Already you can see the shades of “Purple Rose of Cairo,” and “Bullets Over Broadway” here, but there are further vignettes like a scene with Anna Camp‘s disingenuous first-timer prostitute, and some speeches from Bobby’s philosophizing brother-in-law Leonard (Stephen Kunken), that can make it feel like Allen is riffling a flip-book of segments from his past films under your nose. But if “Cafe Society” is Allen quoting Allen (sometimes literally — the line “Socrates says the unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined life is no bargain either” has certainly been trotted out before) at least he’s quoting his better bits.
What little shock of the new the film can provide us with comes from the honeyed cinematography by Vittorio Storaro which uses silhouettes, graphic compositions and glowing closeups in an often genuinely breathtaking manner. But it also comes from the performances. Eisenberg is so seamlessly cast as the Allen proxy that occasionally when the film segues from Allen’s own voiceover to Bobby speaking it feels continuous, while the supporting cast is peppered with sparkling turns, from Stoll and Jeannie Berlin in particular as the family matriarch. Berlin’s turn is so great (and she gets the single best line too) that we can almost forgive Parker Posey being wasted in a role that doesn’t capitalize nearly enough on her witchy weirdness.
But it is Kristen Stewart who is the shimmering pole star in this firmament. Her sad eyes, throaty delivery and slightly heartbreaking aura of watchfulness make Vonnie much more than beautiful; they make her interesting. And so while there’s an easy chemistry between her and third-time co-star Eisenberg, as co-leads, he fits perfectly into his role, while she simply overflows hers and spills out from the screen. It makes what on the page is another in a long line of Allen’s ingenue leads, designed to be little more than decorative milestones in the emotional education of a young, nebbish Jewish man, into a breathing woman whose own story is far more compelling than Bobby’s. It suggests that if Stewart does become the latest of Allen’s muses, it might be for the best — with her effortless air of modernity despite her 1930s costuming (she even works “bow in hair” — not an easy feat) and her genuinely complicated charisma, she saves Allen from his own worst tendencies with regards to his young female stars.
And those tendencies are still there. As enjoyable as “Cafe Society” is, make no mistake, this is still late-period Allen. The men are described (often by their women, but sometimes in the regrettably redundant voiceover) in terms of their character, their complications, their angst. But the women are described in terms of their beauty, and their effect on said men. Blake Lively, who plays Bobby’s settled-for wife Veronica as a kind of eternally smiling saintly figure, perhaps gets shortest shrift in this context. When she, in her absence, becomes the butt of an exchange between two men about how women who become mothers devote way too much time to their children (and not enough, it is implied, to their husbands) it’s a sour note that reminds us that Bad Allen is always there, lurking not far from the surface. Similarly certain speeches from Steve Carell in resolute straight-guy mode, have an edge of petulance, or pre-emptive defensiveness about them as Phil self-justifyingly explains the hardships of being a man married for 25 years who falls in love with a 25 year-old.
But those baser instincts are mostly kept in check in a film that wants more than anything to entertain — certainly a relief after the dourly pedagogical tendencies of Allen’s last film, “Irrational Man.” “Life is a comedy, but it’s one written by a sadistic comedy writer” says Bobby at one point, but the comedy-writer Allen on display here is not so much sadistic as wistful. He’s drenched in nostalgia for the very concept of unfulfilled true love, for the prewar heyday of the Hollywood star system (which Allen namechecks his way through incessantly and unapologetically) and for a New York City of gangsters in flat caps and back alley craps games and stolen kisses at dawn in Central Park. And you know, that’s okay, because we were getting pretty nostalgic for the good old days of warm, witty, fond and funny Woody Allen too, and if we might never get them back again, “Café Society” is at least a pretty little reminder of what once was. [B]