*** stars (out of four)
Like clockwork, the 80-year-old writer/director Woody Allen continues his film-a-year pace with the new comedy/drama Café Society.
Set in 1930s Hollywood and New York City, the film tells the story of Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg). He leaves his family in New York to pursue a life on the West Coast. He takes a job as an assistant to his shifty agent uncle (Steve Carell). Eisenberg falls in love with Carell’s secretary (Kristen Stewart), even though she’s in a relationship with a married man.
The resolution to that plot line occurs around the film’s midway point. While there are some laughs to be had in the first half, the film gets stronger in its second part. After it shifts gears, Café Society becomes a meditation on how even people with good lives often wonder about opportunities missed and paths not taken.
Woody Allen has frequently struggled to find actors who can play surrogate variations of the character he established in his classic films like Annie Hall and Sleeper. Eisenberg, who headlined what was by far the best segment of Allen’s otherwise disappointing anthology film To Rome With Love, is one of the best (ranking alongside Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris). And in his third film with Stewart, the two share a strong chemistry they also displayed in 2009’s excellent Adventureland.
But the real star of the show is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds). Every shot is so beautifully lit, it’s hard not to want to jump into the screen and live in the movie’s world.