Café Society is surprisingly ambitious by the standards of late-period Woody Allen — a veritable epic taking in a broad swath of a young man's life and charting his progress from wide-eyed innocent to cold, confident operator. As Bobby Dorfman, Jesse Eisenberg honors some of the nebbishy mannerisms we've come to expect from Woody Surrogates, but he never lets the familiar gestures and inflections overwhelm his performance. This is a person, not a persona. Newly arrived in Hollywood, New Yorker Bobby gets a gofer job thanks to his hotshot agent uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), and promptly falls for Phil's assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Although she insists that she has a boyfriend, Vonnie continues to grow closer to Bobby. That boyfriend, it turns out, is Bobby's own uncle Phil, who keeps telling her he'll leave his wife but never gets around to it.
Eisenberg is solid. But that doesn't stop Stewart from blowing him out of the water. And the film works best when only we in the audience are privy to Vonnie's dilemma -- when the camera fixes on the quiet dance of shame and uncertainty on Stewart's face. The young man's inevitable disillusionment is familiar and touching, to be sure, but hers is transfixing. We want to see more of her.
Certainly more than Allen gives us. After the revelations come out, Bobby returns to New York, and the film bops blithely along, as if its creator were unsure what's interesting about it. Café Society was shot by the great Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Reds, Apocalypse Now<.i>), and the collaboration has benefited both director and cinematographer: You can sense Allen thinking about visual storytelling.