Woody Allen's latest awkward romance is visually stunning, but narratively underdeveloped
The clockwork-like regularity with which Woody Allen turns out his movies is comforting to a degree, but he's now more hit-and-miss than ever. Café Society is both, a beautiful-looking 1930s-set East-and-West Coast romance that feels like a film of two halves. It offers Allen a reunion with Jesse Eisenberg, who starred in 2012's wayward To Rome With Love, the actor taking on exactly the sort of role Allen would've played in his youth; a wide-eyed Jewish New Yorker named Bobby Dorfman.
Arriving in Hollywood, where his uncle Phil (Steve Carell) runs a top-level talent agency, Bobby is soon being shown round town by Phil's spiky secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). As he begins to fall for her, there's a hitch: Vonnie is also seeing the married Phil. Allen has frequently essayed the pain that love can cause and does again here, with Eisenberg brilliantly conveying it in his eyes in one particular scene.
Still, watching Café Society, you're left with the nagging feeling that it's a 45-minute short that was never developed properly into a feature. The wonderful Corey Stoll (House of Cards), who plays Bobby's ultra-violent gangster brother back in New York, is left with an underdeveloped supporting role that works mostly as a device to help lever Bobby into the second half of the film. Likewise, Blake Lively's socialite Veronica makes only the most cosmetic of impressions.
For all its flaws, however, Café Society is utterly beautiful to look at. Allen is here collaborating with the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who conjures some stunning images amid the mansions and swimming pools of L.A.'s glitterati. For Allen aficionados, it's certainly more palatable than his previous trip to Tinseltown, Hollywood Ending. But, amongst his 21st Century efforts, it's a glistening confection that falls some way behind the likes of Midnight In Paris and Blue Jasmine.
Wide release from Fri 2 Sept.