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Woody Allen Laughs at Longing and Regret

'Cafe Society' stars Jesse Eisenberg as a young man in a flurry

(Video) Café Society Movie Trailer:  Set in the 1930s, a young Bronx native moves to Hollywood where he falls in love with the secretary of his powerful uncle, an agent to the stars. After returning to New York he is swept up in the vibrant world of high society nightclub life.

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

Stars: Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart

Director: Woody Allen

Café Society bristles with pointed Woody Allen one-liners and shines with sharp performances by a sterling ensemble. But beyond the laughs, Allen's latest delivers a meditation on life's endless stream of choices — and the scar tissue that remains even when you believe you've made all the right ones.

Bathed in a persistent orange glow that brings the gleam of sunset even to midday, populated with beautiful people lounging by sumptuous Beverly Hills pools, and set against dramatic hilltop vistas and palm-lined streets, Café Society sure looks like a love letter to 1930s Hollywood. But while Allen's camera makes love to L.A., the film's heart, like its creator's, beats some 3,000 miles to the east, somewhere south of Washington Square and north of SoHo.

Café Society finds Bobby, an aimless young man from the Bronx (Jesse Eisenberg, ably standing in for Woody), arriving in Hollywood hoping his talent agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) will find him some work. Uncle Phil makes poor Bobby wait weeks before finally giving him an audience — a state of lonely limbo that leads to a scene as tangy and funny and poignant as anything Allen has ever created, as Bobby pursues a disastrous session with a flustered first-time prostitute, played with jittery genius by Anna Camp (The Help).

Finally Phil throws Bobby a bone — a position as his personal gofer. Phil also assigns his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around town.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in 'Cafe Society'

Sabrina Lantos/Lionsgate

As Bobby, Jesse Eisenberg channels Woody Allen alongside Kristen Stewart as Vonnie. his love interest in "Cafe Society."

Of course Bobby falls hard for Vonnie — and she eventually reciprocates — but this being a Woody Allen movie, there are IEDs aplenty on the road to love. Deploying the comic precision that characterizes his best scripts, Allen unfolds the romantic complications like the tabs of an origami fortune-teller puzzle: The characters each know some fragment of vital information about the situation, but not enough to understand its full meaning and just enough to make complete idiots of themselves.

Through it all, Bobby feels New York calling him back; his big plan is to marry Vonnie and settle down with her in a Greenwich Village walk-up. Indeed, as writer-director, Allen himself seems reluctant to stay away from the Bronx for too long. Café Society spends much of its time — perhaps a tad too much — following the exploits of Bobby's extended family back East. They're a colorful lot: a pair of bickering parents, a gangster brother, a sister married to a communist intellectual. They crowd around a too-small table in a tiny kitchen, their chaotic conversations tumbling over one another, their exhortations amplified by brashness, tempered by affection.

Allen takes pains to contrast those tumultuous family gatherings with the antiseptic formality of Hollywood dinner parties, at which every sentence is offered in measured expectation of reciprocal favors. The only truly likable characters Bobby finds are those who are, of course, New Yorkers at heart.

In the film's final third, Bobby does indeed return to New York, running what is seemingly his gangster brother's sole legitimate operation, a fancy nightclub (Café Society, it so happens, is the actual name of a 1930s Greenwich Village jazz hot spot, founded by a Jewish businessman amd the first in the U.S. to be racially integrated). Married with a child, surrounded by family who adore him, Bobby would seem to have it all. But he has discovered one of life's more subtle lessons: As surely as we must make choices, the what-ifs of those choices follow us like softly panting stray dogs.

At its haunting fade-out, Café Society vividly conveys the power of that regret — not the kind of regret that compels you to change your life; not even the kind that makes you wish things had turned out differently. Just the kind that sits there in a dark corner of your brain, occasionally leaning to your ear and whispering, "Remember me?"

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.

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