If you were led blindfolded into a cinema and unaware of what movie you were seeing, I still think that if it was a Woody Allen film, within 20 minutes you’d know it.

The Brooklyn native makes movies that are stamped with his own signature style, and the latest to reach Japan is “Cafe Society,” his 47th film, and one in which he also does the voice-over narration.

Having already cemented his position as one of American cinema’s most revered auteurs, the 81-year-old Allen is the king of his castle and has never shown much interest in venturing outside of its confines. With “Cafe Society,” though, he concedes a little, a cautious foot out the door if you will.

Cafe Society
Run Time 96 mins
Language ENGLISH
Opens MAY 5

This is Allen’s first foray into digital filming, which might have something to do with the fact that he made a miniseries last year, “Crisis in Six Scenes,” for Amazon. Even though Allen and Amazon seem an unlikely combo, he has survived with his style intact. “Cafe Society” may as well be preserved in a glass case in a private museum, shown only to discerning fans who will recognize all the Allen hallmarks: the quips, the angst, the inevitable yearning for true love in the face of deceit and infidelity.

On the other hand, you don’t have to be an Allen aficionado to enjoy “Cafe Society” — in relatively short doses, that is. First off, this is Allen in his diatribe-against-Hollywood mode, highlighting what he perceives as the shallowness of Tinseltown (though it’s set in Hollywood’s golden era of the mid-20th century and the names being dropped are Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire) and the jabs can get pretty funny. The soundtrack consists of carefully curated jazz (Allen’s taste remains flawless in this regard) and a bevy of gorgeous women, most notably Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively. There are some memorable lines (“I’ve never mixed Champagne with bagels and lox”) and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is superb.

My main objection is the lack of charm displayed by protagonist (and Allen surrogate) Bobby, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Bobby is a Jewish kid from the Bronx, looking to try his luck in Hollywood under the tutelage of his big-shot Uncle Phil (Steve Carell). Back in New York, Bobby’s parents and siblings (one of them is a gangster who’s in the habit of gifting his foes with cement shoes) are playful and hilarious but Bobby himself is about as interesting as a plate of day-old clams. He’s kind of average-looking, but not very nice or fun, yet he still catches the attention of Phil’s beautiful, brainy secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart). Bobby needs no prodding: He falls in love with Veronica (affectionately nicknamed “Vonnie” by Phil) pronto and hopes to marry her on his way to building a lucrative career in the pictures.

Many of Allen’s on-screen alter egos have been known to skitter between “kind of obnoxious” to “downright loathsome.” Watching Bobby, you can’t help but think that in Allen’s world men get to be arrogant jerks who do and say whatever they like, while women are either really nice, or sexy and troublesome.

Either way, the jerk gets the girl and has a grand old time, though true happiness almost always eludes him in the end. Indeed, for all his cockiness, Bobby comes off like a jaded old man or, maybe, a jaded veteran filmmaker. He goes through the motions of love and romance, but like Allen himself, his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it.

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