Jesse Eisenberg stars as Bobby Dorfman, a restless Jewish New Yorker who moves from the sepia-toned Bronx to honey-hued Los Angeles, where his uncle Phil Stern (a surprisingly macho and broad-shouldered Steve Carell), is a powerful talent agent. There are shades of Blue Jasmine in the barely-there sibling relationship between Bobby’s working-class mother and the high-living Phil, but he agrees to give young Bobby a job as a gofer. Better still, he invites him to glamorous poolside parties (where the movie stars of the era are namechecked but, alas, never glimpsed) and introduces him to his wealthy friends (including Parker Posey).
Best of all, he instructs his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around town. Bobby falls for her – and no wonder: Stewart has the glow of a bona fide 1930s bombshell while retaining her characteristically sheepish, down-to-earth persona. But when Vonnie tells him that she already has a serious boyfriend, Bobby is torn between staying in Hollywood or returning to New York, where his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is a nightclub owner (read: gangster).Eisenberg – no stranger to jittery, uptight characters – is one of the most natural of Woody proxies: he can get a laugh with a sudden turn of his head. But he doesn’t have the vulnerability and affability that Allen himself once had. Brittle and aloof, he can’t convince us that Bobby is truly in love with Vonnie – or, for that matter, that he is enthusiastic about anything except, of course, New York and jazz. But this cold-fish quality isn’t entirely Eisenberg’s fault. He and Stewart are saddled with the kind of verbose late-period Allen dialogue that is hard to read, let alone pass off as human conversation. Stewart has to say, “I just hate this duplicity.” And Bobby offers to buy Vonnie “a love letter from your favourite actress, Barbara Stanwyck” – just in case she’d forgotten who her favourite actress was.
But the real reason why the love affair doesn’t come into focus is that Allen loses sight of it: like that roving nightclub camera, his attention keeps wandering elsewhere. Just as we’re settling into a nostalgic homage to Golden Age Hollywood – à la the Coens’ Hail, Caesar! - he slips across to New York to check up on various members of Bobby’s family.
And just when as we’re getting interested in the love triangle, he goes strolling between several of his other time-honoured preoccupations: Jewishness, the ethics of murder, the finality of death, and, that old perennial, men with much younger girlfriends. It’s not unpleasant to follow him on these leisurely rambles. There is nothing in Café Society as wince-making as there is in some of his recent misfires, and the clothes and golden lighting are ravishing from start to finish. But the film never finds anything weighty enough to anchor it: it’s lacking a performance as towering as Cate Blanchett’s in Blue Jasmine or a concept as intriguing as the time travel in Midnight in Paris. It’s funny, but not very funny. It’s moving, but not very moving. A café that could do with more caffeine, it doesn’t manage to give the heartstrings a proper tug until its closing minutes.
Actually, that’s not quite true. One element of Café Society is profoundly affecting, and that’s Allen’s narration. It’s not that the words themselves are emotive – by and large, they explain what’s happening to the characters, thus saving the writer-director the bother of scripting more dramatic scenes – but it’s a jolt to hear the 80-year-old’s voice sounding so tired and slurred and blurry, and so unlike the livewire narrator of Manhattan. (“Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.”) Café Society may not say anything new about love or Hollywood or the 1930s, but it becomes, accidentally, a poignant film about old age.