Jesse Eisenberg in a Woody Allen film — it was bound to happen. Of all the actors who have stood in for the filmmaker over the decades, from Kenneth Branagh to Larry David, Eisenberg seems born to hit this particular nail on the head: a smart, high-strung kid with a combination of neurotic energy and arrogance. What’s more, the actor and the director are both polarizing presences: You either love ’em or loathe ’em.
In “Café Society,” Eisenberg plays young Bobby Dorfman, who is — surprise! — a Jewish New Yorker transplanted to Hollywood. The time is the 1930s, just a smidge later than Allen’s hit “Midnight in Paris,” and Bobby is whisked around to glamorous parties by his Uncle Phil (an excellent Steve Carell), a big-shot agent who hobnobs with Ginger Rogers and Hedy Lamarr. What really beguiles Bobby, though, is Phil’s pretty secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Alas, her heart belongs to another, and a love triangle begins.
By the hit-and-miss standards of late-period Allen, “Café Society” is certainly above average. The period costumes pull us into an attractive-looking world, and Vittorio Storaro’s golden-glow cinematography has just the right touch of unreality. Eisenberg does a decent job of establishing his own persona (as much as anyone can when playing Allen’s surrogate), and he has strong support from Corey Stoll as Bobby’s gangster brother and Blake Lively as another woman who catches Bobby’s eye.
The standout, though, is Stewart. Her Vonnie is a complicated character who transforms from down-to-earth girl to jewelry-drenched arriviste, but Stewart somehow embodies the inconsistency and makes us believe her.
Inconsistency can be fatal in the hands of almost any other writer-director, but it’s one of Allen’s greatest strengths. He’s always loved the way people fall in and out of love (“Annie Hall”), change their personalities (“Zelig”) and second-guess themselves (“Hannah and Her Sisters”). Although “Café Society” is no match for those movies, its fine cast and bittersweet tone save the day. It’s another sparkling little fable from the 80-year-old Allen, whose familiar voice provides the droll narration.
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively.
Director: Woody Allen.
Running time: 1:36.
Rated: PG-13, for adult themes.