In Café Society, sexual predator Woody Allen's 47th feature film, opening Friday in limited release, young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood hoping to score a gig in the film industry with his hot-shot agent Uncle Phil (Steve Carell). It is the glamorously sunlit 1930s, and Uncle Phil is forever away on business or detained on momentous phone calls with the A-list deities of the era. And so, still jobless in an early scene, Bobby engages the services of a prostitute at the encouragement of his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), back home in the Bronx.
But the prostitute arrives late and at the wrong room, and Bobby is so bothered by the circumstances — the fact that the hotel's other patrons have seen her, for instance, and the fact that she is Jewish and this is her first job — that the mood is sullied beyond repair. Bobby and the hooker spend a lengthy scene — a scene which has zero impact on the major arcs of the film — fighting about whether or not they ought to go ahead and do it. Eisenberg stutters and stammers and sort of whinnies as he's prone to do, and though he's an imperfect surrogate for Allen himself, the scene is finally reassuring in its evocation of vintage Woody Allen: bantery, neurotic, wholeheartedly Jewish.
Vintage Allen is on display all over Café Society, down to the jazz score and the voiceover (narrated by Allen himself). Like some of Allen's finest work, it flashes back to an era of elegance and flare, rendered exquisitely by the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro who, among other projects, was director of photography for Apocalypse Now. The colors and textures, to say nothing of the costumes and props, paint a rich and loving portrait of Los Angeles.
The story is less kooky and cartoonish than some of this particular writer-director's more recent efforts, too — let us not speak of the queasy Magic in the Moonlight — and is brought vividly to life by several actors in unexpectedly luminous performances.
Kristen Stewart, most notably, who has tended to do little but pout and mumble as she's portrayed a spectrum of damaged teens, here plays Vonnie, Uncle Phil's assistant and Bobby Dorfman's love interest. To our thrill and surprise, she actually conveys a personality worthy of being sought after, and conveys, no less, the struggle of being sought after by multiple suitors. It's her finest turn yet. Eisenberg, Carell, Parker Posey, and even Blake Lively — so ravishing it almost hurts — rarely dip into the overbroad comedic performances required of many an Allen script. Though the circumstances are often absurd, these characters feel like real people.
When Bobby is jettisoned, by Vonnie, for the opposing vertex in their love triangle, he returns to New York and manages a new club operated by his brother. He hobnobs with the rich and famous — the café society the title references — until one day Vonnie and her new husband pay the club a visit, and they spend an evening together, a part-joyous, part-devastating stagger down memory lane.
The movie is not without its Allen pitfalls. A writer as prolific as he is doesn't care much about polishing drafts, and so the script is home to a few very weak minor storylines involving the Dorfman family and some nonchalant tonal shifts. But this one's a winner, as Woody Allen goes. Perhaps with him, there's a great deal more magic in the sunlight.
Still: Woody Allen = Sexual Predator.