You have to strain in the first few scenes to figure out that the omnipresent, labored, slurred — let’s just say it — aged narration of Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” is being delivered by Woody himself.
That’s fitting, as this is as decrepit and tone-deaf as any movie he’s ever made, a corpse of a period piece, production-designed to the hilt, distractedly directed, a failure that hints at The End of Woody.
This is “Radio Days” without the sharp wit, “Hollywood Ending” without the intelligence and charm, “Sweet and Lowdown” with none of the um, warmth of Sean Penn.
Yeah, I’m going for irony here.
It tells an overtly Jewish story of Hollywood in the late 1930s, when young Bobby Dorfman quits dad’s New York jewelry shop and shows up at Uncle Phil’s swank Hollywood talent agency. Steve Carell plays Phil, an over-scheduled shaker and mover who doesn’t name-drop, he name-carpet bombs.
“I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers!”
Yeah, he’ll take the kid on — eventually. But don’t call him “Uncle.” Hate to think Hollywood runs on nepotism or anything.
After a botched encounter with a prostitute — “You’re a Jew? A Jewish hooker. That’s a first!” — Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) falls for one of his uncle-boss’s secretaries (Kristen Stewart, his “Adventureland” co-star). And they court, strolling the beaches, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, a favorite taco joint.
Only Veronica, or “Vonnie,” already has a lover, an always “out-of-town” beau. Turns out, it’s Bobby’s uncle. So Bobby flees back East and marries the next Veronica (Blake Lively) to come along.
Bobby runs a nightclub owned by his brother Ben, played by Corey Stoll in the film’s sole believable/halfway amusing performance. He’s a mobster who settles every disagreement with a murder and a corpse disposed of in the cement foundation of this building or that one. The bodies pile up — hilariously. To some.
Eisenberg, in doing yet another leading man’s version of the Woody Allen stammer, has never seemed more flighty and mannered, gesticulating so much he calls extra attention to the lovely outfits hanging off his stringbean frame.
“Sorry, I’m a little drunk. I’ve never mixed gin with bagels and lox before.”
Stewart cannot ably fake an interest in him and is flatter-than-flat in all but one or two scenes. She’s nobody’s idea of what a 1930s beauty would look like, out-of-place in bobby socks, evening wear and gloves. Without the gloves, she shows off the gnawed-down fingernails of a nervous teenager, not exactly cafe social.
Characters occasionally stumble through the wrong name — Karen becomes “Carol” — or forgetfully talk about the $10 they owe a $20 hooker. It isn’t done for comic effect. Well, it certainly doesn’t play that way. Woody Allen is letting blown takes onto the screen.
Jenny Berlin and Scottish actor Ken Stott kvetch their way through their roles as Bobby’s observant New York Jewish parents, letting Woody wallow through hoary stereotypes spouting the Wisdom of God’s Chosen folk.
“Live every day as if it’s your last. And some day, you’ll be right!”
Allen, plugging along, making a movie a year whether it needs to be made or not, should take his own advice. It would be a shame to go out on a dog like this. But the longer he works, the more likely that seems.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll
Credits: Written, directed and narrated by Woody Allen. A Lionsgate/Amazon release.
Running time: 1:36