Woody Allen on auto-pilot in bittersweet charmer

Café Society (12A)

There’s an argument to be made for the fact that nearly all of Woody Allen’s films could be titled Café Society. It is, after all, the central theme of his work, that very French idea of self-obsessed navel-gazers surveying life from the comfort of their easy chairs and making dour pronouncements that are wildly at odds with their basically comfortable circumstances.

When Woody was at his peak a few decades back he was unable to afford the A-list stars and opulent sets that have come his way in his golden years when, ironically, his creative powers have started to wane, or at least repeat themselves. But Woody Allen in second gear is still la lot better than most writer/directors in first.

He’s also the narrator here. And, one might say, the lead character as well, because Jesse Eisenberg sounds so much like him with his nerdy mannerisms you feel you’re watching a Woody Allen cloned into modernity by some state-of-the-art technology. 

Eisenberg is Bobby, a troubled young man who flees his dysfunctional Bronx home for Hollywood where he becomes an errand boy for his movie uncle Phil (Steve Carell).  The film is set in the 1930s and captures the period to perfection with its sumptuous visuals and screwball gaggle of frenzied characters. 

The costumes are delightful too, as is the jazz score, which means you can soak yourself in this romantic comedy as you would in a hot tub, savouring the witty oneliners that are second nature to Allen as he immerses us once again in a triangular love story with gangster undertones.

Central to that triangle is Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) who’s also romantically involved with him despite his being married. As he vacillates about a divorce, Bobby starts dating her. But the relationship falters and Bobby returns to New York where he begins working for his mobster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in Ben’s sleazy nightclub. Here he meets socialite Veronica (Blake Lively) and marries her. But then Vonnie comes back into his life…

Purists will denounce the film as Allen-lite, a pale reflection of classics like Annie Hall and Radio Days, or more recent ventures like Blue Jasmine where the grand old man of existential angst seemed to be flexing his muscles for an octogenarian renaissance.

They have a point. Clever and all as this is, it’s more Damon Runyon than Jean-Paul Sartre. One can’t help feeling that Woody is first and foremost a director’s director, which means that no matter how hard his cast try to be themselves, you’re always aware of them speaking from Woody’s mouth rather than their own. 

But it would be ungallant to over-emphasise this point. Try and forget who made it and it sparkles like a fine wine. Think of it as a lush theatrical divertissement,  a razzle-dazzle pastiche that, at its best, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, is as light as the dust on a butterfly’s wings. 

Very Good ****