In a summer of VFX crowdpleasers, it's a kick to find Woody Allen out there working with flesh-and-blood actors who deal with emotions that aren't computer generated. Café Society isn't peak Allen, in the manner of such recent high points as Midnight in Paris (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013), but the film — which could be helpfully subtitled Manhattan v Hollywood — feels lively, lived-in and fallibly human.
The time is the 1930s, the decade of Allen's birth. At a Tinseltown pool party, lit with old-school glamour by camera legend Vittorio Storaro, power agent Phil Stern (a terrific Steve Carell, in for the originally cast Bruce Willis) is confronted with an irritating reminder of his New York past. His sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin, a hoot) has sent him a present from home: Phil's nerdy nephew Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent Angeleno transplant who's in need a job. There's been a long line of young actors that Allen has directed to mimic his halting line readings — Kenneth Branagh remains the worst, thanks to 1998's Celebrity — but Eisenberg, a more natural fit, just nails it. (There's nothing jarring when Allen's voiceover narration shifts to Bobby speaking.) The kid's wide-eyed at first, but disillusion sinks in when he falls for Phil's secretary Vonnie (a radiant Kristen Stewart). Vonnie is a free spirit who rejects the name-dropping, star-fucking aura of her job. Or does she?
After getting rejected by Vonnie, who's been secretly having it on with (I'll never tell), a heartbroken Bobby crawls back to New York. This time, he gets into business with his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a gangster who lets him run a nightclub that attracts the thrill-seeking rich and famous of so-called café society. As the years go on, the successful Bobby marries and has a child with Veronica (Blake Lively, wonderfully appealing), a shiksa goddess who knows there's something in Bobby's past that shuts her out. Cue the reappearance of Vonnie, a bittersweet reunion with Bobby in Central Park and an aura of painful regret that Allen has been mining since Annie Hall.
"Life is a comedy," says Bobby, "but it's one written by a sadistic comedy writer." Allen should know. And in Café Society, buoyed by the nuanced performances of Stewart and Eisenberg, the 80-year-old Allen creates a ravishing romance shot through with humor and heartbreak.