Woody Allen’s 'Café Society' serves a familiar melancholy

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)

Year to year, film to film, Woody Allen’s prolific output remains a feat unto itself.

As of the last few years, so has his consistency: Blue Jasmine, Magic in the Moonlight, and Irrational Man all stand as worthy entries in one of cinema’s most enduring bodies of work. Café Society doesn’t come any closer to reinventing the writer/director’s wheel than those other late-era standouts, but it keeps it spinning at a steady pace.

It’s easy and often accurate to pigeonhole Allen’s protagonists as mere stand-ins for Allen himself. Here that feels especially true: Jesse Eisenberg plays a New Yorker who arrives in 1930s Hollywood with just enough hope in his nervous body for a few months in Tinseltown to be thoroughly disenchanting.

His uncle (Steve Carell) is a high-powered agent with a looker of a secretary (Kristen Stewart) who instantly catches the new arrival’s eye, though there is of course a caveat: She’s already spoken for. This doesn’t stop Eisenberg from attempting to woo her, but it does make heartbreak likely.

Early scenes of his would-be courtship are familiar to the point of retreading thematic ground, as if Allen were on autopilot. The director himself provides scene-setting narration, much of it sounding like notes to his performers that didn’t need to be spoken aloud for the benefit of those in the theater. If you take a dim view of the filmmaker’s recent output and are inclined to think he’s been phoning it in, prepare to have your biases confirmed by the first act — and upended by what follows.

Stewart, as the object of two very different men’s affections, must eventually choose between the devil she knows and the man she doesn’t. Her eyes tell us all we need to know about how vastly different her life will be depending on her choice. Allen invites us to ponder the enormity of this potentially life-altering decision. Never one to shy away from existential dread, he’s acutely aware of the ways in which one path precludes all others. This is a sort of loss — the life we live comes at the expense of those we can’t or don’t.

Her eventual choice splinters the narrative drastically, and also improves it. Eisenberg, at first nebbishy in a way that almost feels low-effort and confined to his comfort zone, develops a cold edge as he returns to New York to manage his brother’s nightclub. Stewart becomes the kind of gown-wearing society girl she used to roll her eyes at.

People grow, often in different directions; coming of age and making hard choices sometimes means feeling like a disappointment or even a betrayal to our former selves. These simple truths may not come as news to anyone watching Café Society, but Allen renders them in increasingly moving, bittersweet shades as time passes.

Now 80 and presumably as obsessed with mortality as ever, Allen is quick to the point but allows each moment between Eisenberg and Stewart to resonate long after they’ve moved from one phase of their lives to another. At a fleet 96 minutes, Café Society eventually comes to feel novelistic in scope and ambition, light on lived-in detail but rich in its two leads’ inner worlds.

Though the setting — the Golden Age of Hollywood — and frequent allusions to the era’s most glamorous stars are ostensibly one of the movie’s main draws, they ultimately do little more than emphasize the melancholy of those beyond the limelight. There are imperfect moments along the way, but the afterglow of a quietly devastating New Year’s Eve sequence casts them in a new light: Champagne flutes that runneth over with hope for the future, kisses stolen at midnight, and two people separated by space but united by longing.

Café Society
directed by Woody Allen
now playing, area theaters