Titles matter. "Casablanca" is set in . . . Casablanca. "The Secret Life of Pets" is about . . . pets. "Café Society," Woody Allen's latest, is about . . . café society. That is, it's about '30s glamour and swank. More accurately, it's about nostalgia for those things. Either way, it's not about characters or chemistry or anything much resembling emotion.
It's another entry in the travelogue phase of Allen's career. Lately, he's done Paris ("Midnight in Paris"), Rome ("To Rome With Love"), the South of France ("Magic in the Moonlight"). Now it's the turn of Hollywood and New York.
Bobby Stern (Jesse Eisenberg) heads to California to try to get a job with his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a high-powered movie agent. To show Bobby the sights, Phil turns to his assistant Vonnie (a very appealing Kristen Stewart).
Back in New York, Bobby's gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll, assured and amusing), is opening a high-class nightclub. Should Bobby stay in Hollywood or come back East to work for his brother? His love life, complicated by a wooden Blake Lively, eventually helps make the decision easier.
Working with Allen for the first time, the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro gives "Café Society" a honeyed gleam. Looks matter even more than the title does. Everything is just so: from Stewart's sunglasses and ankle socks to the banquettes at Ben's club, Les Tropiques. If Eisenberg, as the young-schlemiel lead that a younger Allen would have played, looks ridiculous in a white dinner jacket, that's not the jacket's fault.
The period music on the soundtrack is also just so. Say this for Woody Allen: Like God, he is in the details. Count Basie's "Taxi War Dance" is heard whenever Ben gets trigger happy. It's one of the few bits of wit in a movie where so much else — energy, construction, pacing — is just . . . off. Scenes wander, dialogue meanders, what jokes there are fall flat. "Café Society" is a romantic comedy where the romance is lackluster and the comedy an afterthought.
Don't blame the actors. Parker Posey, as a stylish modeling-agency owner who befriends Bobby, is nearly as good as Stoll. "The Heartbreak Kid" (1972) was a long time ago, but that doesn't keep Jeannie Berlin from making something like a real person out of a Jewish-mother caricature. It's a treat to see Tony Sirico ("The Sopranos") have a scene as a red-tablecloth restaurateur. Paulie Walnuts would be a regular at his place.
It's never good when set design and props interest a filmmaker more than his characters do. Allen is so smitten with the milieu that everything else seems like an afterthought — or excuse. It's like his "Radio Days" (1987) that way, only with a lot more wish fulfillment. Gertrude Stein is no stranger to Allen fans; Kathy Bates plays her in "Midnight in Paris." Stein famously said, "Remarks are not literature." No, they're not. And décor, even when it's as fabulous as in "Café Society," isn't filmmaking.
Written and directed by Woody Allen. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Blake Lively. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Boston Common. 96 minutes. PG-13 (a few murders, a sexual situation or two)