Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Café Society,” plays less like an organic motion picture about characters and a story worth investing in than it does a self-parody.
It’s sad that we’ve officially reached this point, but not surprising, given that Allen has spent decades churning out films without any sort of a pause to refresh things creatively.
The picture has it all: an older man romancing a beautiful younger woman, philosophical digressions, a jazzy score and the nebbish protagonist that Allen might have once played, combining to produce the usual lighthearted screwball satire with vague moral underpinnings.
It is resolutely located in familiar terrain, which isn’t necessarily an inherent problem, but Allen assembles such a haphazard narrative that the cliches stand out. The movie follows a young Jewish New Yorker (Jesse Eisenberg), beset by familiar anxieties, as he moves to Hollywood during the 1930s to work for powerful uncle (Steve Carell), and falls for precisely the woman (Kristen Stewart) that the older married man’s been secretly romancing for some time.
That’s an effective dramatic core, but it’s muddled by subplots involving Eisenberg and his family back in New York, including a burgeoning nightclub business there, and endless scenes of highfalutin social affairs on both coasts that seem to exist because Allen liked the costumes, the ostentatiously luxurious settings and Vittorio Storaro’s undeniably beautiful cinematography, with its sweeping long takes and affinity for atmospheric magic-hour lighting.
Allen’s wandering eye expands the scope of the project to such a significant extent that the apparatus crumbles. There are too many characters introduced and never given a third-dimension, a superfluous secondary story about the New York mob that plays like a stale relic of “Bullets Over Broadway,” wildly impacting the tone of the picture, and an uncomfortable vacillation between the New York and Hollywood settings that effectively renders the depiction of each incomplete.
With the story such a mess, and with little to focus on but the production design and camerawork, plus performances by Eisenberg and Stewart that offer the subtle human touches missing from the writing, “Cafe Society” plays like someone else’s idea of a Woody Allen movie.
We’ve seen it all before, countless times, from the faux wisdom, exemplified by a character that loves to quote Socrates and other philosophers as if they were greeting-card fodder, to the tiresome spectacle of men seducing and romancing women that are clearly out of their league, to the period obsessions. Allen in this mode is a tired act and ready for retirement. A creative rebirth going forward, of the sort the icon has managed several times before, seems necessary.