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Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart check out Hollywood's stateliest homes in "Cafe Society."

So it turns out that the latest young actress to give a dazzling performance in a Woody Allen film wasn’t Emma Stone but rather Kristen Stewart. Hands up, everybody who called that one. (Yeah, I didn’t think so.) In his latest film, Café Society, Allen casts her as a bright, snappy, worldly-wise young operator in 1930s Hollywood. The actress who moped through the Twilight movies wouldn’t immediately spring to mind for a part like this. Maybe that’s why she does things with it that other actresses might not think to do. When playing Americans in the 1930s, so many actors just talk really fast and leave it at that because that’s what actors in movies from back then tended to do. Stewart, however, infuses the part with softness and vulnerability that pop the role into three dimensions. She’s easily the best reason to see this otherwise flat entry into Allen’s body of work.

She plays Vonnie, a personal secretary to high-powered agent to the stars Phil Stern (Steve Carell) in 1936. When Phil’s nephew Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives fresh from the Bronx, looking to get away from New York and take a job at the agency, he’s immediately smitten by Vonnie, whom Phil leaves to show Bobby around L.A. She warns Bobby that she has a boyfriend but neglects to tell him that the boyfriend is Uncle Phil himself, who’s going back and forth over whether to leave his wife for her.

This is the third film with Stewart and Eisenberg playing romantic leads opposite each other, and they seem as delighted in each other as ever. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro lends a burnished look to their scenes together in Los Angeles, a city that the director notoriously hates. Yet everything else here is wrong. Carell’s performance is so charmless that when Allen’s own voiceover narration tells us about Phil’s magnetic appeal, we have no idea what he’s talking about. Phil’s vacillation seems to come less from the character and more from Allen’s need to pad this movie out because he doesn’t have enough story. Maybe that’s the reason for Bobby’s abortive encounter with a prostitute (Anna Camp). The scene is supposed to get its humor from her being new to the profession and her fragile self-esteem, but the scene is simply maddening rather than funny.

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Other dead ends include Bobby’s eventual marriage to a gorgeous and casually anti-Semitic socialite (Blake Lively) and the stuff with his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll). While Ben’s last-minute conversion to Christianity is worth exploring, Allen isn’t interested beyond the joke that their mother (Jeannie Berlin) is even more ashamed of her son’s new faith than she is of his murder conviction. These are all mere distractions from what’s supposed to be a tender little romance of missed connections and opportunities. Maybe Café Society would have been better if Allen had concentrated on that, though you wonder whether he still has the touch to pull that off. Regardless, his failure winds up wasting a wonderful performance. What a shame.

[box_info]Café Society
Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]

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