For his 45th movie, Woody Allen has once again retreated to the safety of yesteryear, a simpler time when a man could have a girlfriend 20 years his junior without anyone noticing. “Cafe Society,” set mostly in Hollywood in the late 1930s, is typical 21st-century Woody: pleasant, though not particularly funny; a bit melancholic, though not emotionally affecting; likable though not memorable. Woody Allen is now our most prolific producer of cinematic shrugs.
Allen serves as narrator this time, using Jesse Eisenberg as his onscreen avatar, at least at first. Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a Bronx kid who comes to L.A. hoping to get a job with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a self-important, high-powered Hollywood agent. Uncle Phil has his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), show Bobby around town, and the two become friendly. But Vonnie says she has a boyfriend, a journalist who travels frequently, leaving Bobby to pine for her.
Eisenberg has been a stand-in for Allen before (in “To Rome with Love”), and he’s well-suited for the job, with the right mixture of nervous intelligence and fussiness. An amusing early scene, in which Bobby has a disastrous encounter with a first-time hooker (Anna Camp), could have been plucked from something Allen wrote in the ’70s. But the filmmaker eventually lets Eisenberg do his own thing, establishing a character who’s more polished and proactive than the usual Woody surrogate.
In keeping with the Old Hollywood theme, Allen and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro often photograph Kristen Stewart in the gauzy, soft-focus style once used on starlets and screen queens. (Tellingly, when another woman, played by Blake Lively, enters Bobby’s life in the second half of the film, she doesn’t get the same treatment.) Allen revels in the nostalgia, packing as many Rodgers and Hart tunes into the soundtrack as he can, and giving us a glimpse of marital happiness in the form of Rad (Parker Posey) and Steve Taylor (Paul Schneider), a peppy New York couple transplanted to L.A.
The matter of Bobby, Uncle Phil, and Vonnie is the film’s main concern … until it isn’t. Allen pads it out, to bemusing effect, with an ongoing story about Bobby’s family. His brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), is a gangster back in New York, though their good Jewish parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) are in denial about it. Bobby and Ben also have a sister, Evelyn (Sari Lennick), with a philosophizing husband (Stephen Kunken), both of whom come in handy later in the story.
Except that it doesn’t feel like a “story” so much as a series of events involving related characters. These extraneous vignettes dilute the potency of the Bobby-and-Vonnie arc, as if Allen were deliberately trying to dull his film’s impact. As with much of his work in the last couple decades, you get a strong sense that Allen simply doesn’t care whether his movies appeal to anyone but him, and that even he’s lukewarm on them. This time, thanks mostly to charming performances by Eisenberg and Stewart, the movie happened to turn out OK.
(96 minutes; rated PG-13; opens Friday, July 29, at Hollywood Theatre, Century Clackamas Town Center, and Century 16 Cedar Hills Crossing.)