You wouldn’t think America was in the Depression in Woody Allen’s 1935-set Café Society. Veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) makes the place jaw-gapingly gorgeous: a full-colour chiaroscuro that mixes velvety shadows with voluptuous hues. If we must have works of comedy-drama fluff from this once great filmmaker — and these years it seems we must — they might as well ravish the senses.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the Woody surrogate, a neurotic young New Yorker sent by his family to Hollywood to try and bag a job with studio-mogul uncle Steve Carell. But at first we barely pay him any attention. Nor love object Kristen Stewart as Carell’s Girl Friday. Woody Allen himself delivers the voice-over narration with its sub-par epigrams. (Best: “Live every day like it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right.”) We’re in the gutter — or the popcorn clutter — gazing up at the stars. We ogle like ensorcelled idiots the swoony screen pictures. Even in New York City, where Eisenberg’s bad-seed brother (Corey Stoll) is running murders and nightclubs (“café society” of a different kind), every image looks a million dollars.
If only the film sounded as good. We’d shoot the pianist for a start: the light jazz soundtrack seldom lets up. And we wish the dialogue, for all the sad-funny passion Eisenberg and Stewart try to inject, sounded less like “We’re doing The Great Gatsby with our own discount take on F Scott’s acid-etched nostalgia.” The gangster scenes in New York are better than the Hollywood scenes, but that’s not saying much. When you leave a movie thinking only of the cinematography and production design (Santo Loquasto), something has gone wrong. It’s like leaving a maternity ward hugging the cards and flowers instead of the baby.