Perhaps to orient viewers for a familiar ride, Allen opens “Cafe Society” with his own voiceover narration, introducing the fast-paced 1930s world of Hollywood agent Phil (Steve Carell), a Sammy Glick-like hustler who chatters his way through deals with countless A-listers while harboring an extramarital affair with his soft-spoken secretary Vonnie (Stewart). That balance is shaken with the arrival of Bobby (Eisenberg), Phil’s hapless nephew, who flees his anxiety-riddled New York family for a fresh start out west. While he never quite finds his groove, he does find Vonnie, and soon she finds herself trapped between their dueling affections.
None of that should come as a surprise, but “Cafe Society” refreshingly avoids solely focusing on another tale of misdirected love. Fleshing out Bobby’s conflicted universe, Allen spends nearly as much time with his garrulous inner-city relatives, which include his Yiddish-spouting mother (Jeannie Berlin), his nebbishy father (Richard Portnow), and his gun-toting gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), who runs a nightclub.
Allen’s more at home with this embellished world of immigrant anxieties than classic Hollywood (where “Hail, Caesar” embraced studio mythology, “Cafe Society” rejects it) and so’s his wandering protagonist, who soon gives up on his West-Coast dreams and heads back to the city for another reboot — but not before he falls deeply in love with Vonnie, whose ethereal beauty and understated charm speak to him in ways that he can’t understand, even as anyone familiar with “Seinfeld” knows the drill: She has shiksa appeal.
As a high fantasy that romanticizes many aspects of its period at once, “Cafe Society” may not be Allen’s most original work, but it’s one of his snazziest efforts in some time. That’s partly due to the formidable efforts of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose use of the Sony CineAlta F65 marks the first instance of a digital camera in Allen’s filmography, and it’s a welcome one. While the gold-hued closeups sometimes overstate Allen’s attempt to emulate the stylized look of studio films from the era, the nimble camera movement offers a more engaging sense of place than numerous stilted Allen films of late. The effect is particularly evident in later scenes, set at the titular New York nightclub where Bobby eventually rises to power, as the vibrant setting comes to life in rich detail. Just as Allen’s work tends to rise and fall on the basis of his performances, so too does the technology help gloss over some of the creakier moments.
Unfortunately, these come up from time to time, as Allen juggles a vast set of underrealized side characters. Parker Posey and Paul Schneider do their best in fleeting moments as the supportive older couple who help Bobby find a new start, but nothing Blake Lively does can salvage her half-baked role as his potential rebound. Mainly, “Cafe Society” belongs to the top three performers, with Carell finding a happy medium between his goofier tendencies and melancholic undertones, while Eisenberg and Stewart maintain an endearing screen chemistry even though their romance never fully convinces.
Also unconvincing: The Hollywood scene. While the filmmaker doses his script with plenty of historical reference points, from Bette Davis to John Ford, these figures dribble from characters’ mouths like empty signifiers as they remain off-screen. But that enhances Bobby’s assessment of the Hollywood scene as “kind of half-bored, half-fascinating,” and allows Allen to find kookier possibilities with the New York Jews that dominate the film’s third act. Allen’s idiosyncratic dialogue really shines once a criminal subplot leads to several prolonged bits of family arguments. The best moments go to Berlin, who singlehandedly turns “Cafe Society” into a hilarious parody of smarmy cultural identification. “Too bad Jews don’t have an afterlife,” she declares. “They’d get a lot of business.”
Needless to say, Allen devotees will find plenty to appreciate but little to obsess over. No matter how uneven his outcome, Allen’s late-period achievements increasingly show signs of a renewed self-awareness. “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer,” Bobby sighs at one point, but Allen leaves no doubt about who’s really talking here.