Starting with the plain white opening titles against a black background, Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy, “Café Society,” has all the earmarks of earlier Allen rom-coms: an Allen avatar with a Jewish background, a beautiful love interest (or two), a score consisting of mid-twentieth-century standards. Some people will say, “Not again!”; others will cheer.
Include me in the latter category–with reservations.
It’s the 1930s, and Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves Brooklyn to find his fortune–or something–in Hollywood, where he hopes to get a job with his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a powerhouse agent (“Ginger Rogers is trying to get in touch with me”). Bobby has no real interest in the movies, or in movie stars, or in glamor, so you might wonder what he’s doing in Hollywood aside from giving Allen an excuse to play around with shots of sunlit beaches, movie stars’ mansions, glam costumes (by Suzy Benzinger), and the like.
Uncle Phil, too busy at first to even give Bobby a few minutes of his time, eventually sets him up with a job as a go-fer. In the meantime, Bobby falls for Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (“The Twilight Saga”‘s Kristen Steward), who seems to respond, until she admits that she already has a boyfriend.
Bobby eventually returns to New York–alone–and goes to work for his brother Ben (“House of Cards”‘s Corey Stoll), a nightclub owner/gangster who seems to have sprung off another branch of the family tree.
With his slight stoop and self-effacing manner, Eisenberg does a suitable Woody Allen shtick, but his transformation into a smooth nightclub host isn’t convincing, despite Eisenberg’s more aggressive body language in these scenes. But the club is where he meets Veronica (Blake Lively–“Gossip Girl”), a shiksa who thinks Jews are “quaint.” Ouch.
The Jewish angle gets another twist when brother Ben gets into a bit of trouble. “First a murderer–then he becomes a Christian! What did I do to deserve this?” wails Ben and Bobby’s mother (Jeannie Berlin), the archetypal Jewish mother familiar to all Woody Allen devotees.
It’s hardly new material, but if you loved “Manhattan” or “Annie Hall” (the only other Allen film with an LA setting, I believe), and if you love oldies from the 30’s (“Lady Is a Tramp,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” as well as less familiar ones such as “Taxi War Dance,” played either on original soundtracks or by Allen regular pianist Conal Fowkes), you’ll find “Café Society” a pleasant date movie. (The old-fashioned term “café society,” by the way, refers to “socialites who regularly frequent fashionable nightclubs, resorts, etc.,” according to dictionary.com. Nothing to do with Starbucks.)
As always, Woody Allen wrote and directed. He also narrates, though just why isn’t clear.