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Kristen Stewart Steals The Show In Woody Allen's 'Café Society'

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Back in 1977, Woody Allen described Los Angeles as a city "where the only cultural advantage is you can make a right turn on a red light." Almost 40 years later, Allen may have not fall under the spell of the land of sunshine and oranges, but at least his cinematographer has. Café Society makes the first collaboration between the comic director and Vitorrio Storato, whose legendary credits include The Conformist, Reds, and Apocalypse Now. The septuagenarian cinematographer has also made the switch to digital for the first time (marking Allen's first venture too), so when Jesse Eisenberg's Bobby arrives on the doorsteps of Hollywood in the 1930s, the air is filled with golden yellows and burgundy reds, while the cut-backs to New York feature drab grays and greens. The glamour and glitz of L.A. is less in the stars than in the tones Allen's camera dollies through—even darkness simply creates sensuous silhouettes—but only one thing impresses Bobby.

Playing the Allen stand-in, Bobby arrives from the Big Apple to escape his nagging mother (Jeanie Berlin) and his gangster uncle (Cory Stoll) and find work with his other uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who seems largely based on the legendary agent Charles Feldman. But Bobby instead lusts after Phil's secretary Vonnie, given a chameleon presence by the magnanimous Kristen Stewart. The only problem is, Vonnie has a boyfriend—and that boyfriend, unbeknownst to the ingénue Bobby is his married uncle Phil. Instead of overplay this drama, Bobby continues to pine away with romantic intentions, occasionally consoling himself with Parker Posey's traveled wise-woman, while bringing Vonnie to the Vista see Barbara Stanwyck movies and Beverly Hills to see Spencer Tracy's mansion.

It should no longer surprise anyone in claiming Stewart as one of the great actresses of her generation, but the way she works through the material thrown at her by different directors continues to surprise. After Adventureland and American Ultra, Eisenberg and Stewart have nailed down their quasi-flirtatious tone to a relaxed comic pace. He darts his pointed eyes with the dialogue rapidly firing out of his mouth, while she allows words to spill with less tonal inclination and more rhythmic parsing of emotion. When she later appears dressed in a Minnie Mouse-like getup, her anxiety comes less from her voice than her exasperated moving hands, accentuated by white gloves. Blake Lively later shows up as a competitive love interest her Bobby, and the staunch difference between these two performers could not be clearer. Lively excels in poise and charm—the classic movie star eloquence—but Stewart remains a magnetic chameleon by moving in some way that cannot be captured. She never reveals her method on screen; the kind of presence that would die on the stage, but thrives given the perfectly placed camera.

Café Society eventually sends its narrative back to New York, where Bobby works in what becomes the eponymous club, and Storatto slowly changes New York's color schemes to slick blacks and whites with sparks of royal blues and mahogany oaks. In Allen's loose tempos, the camera dollies into shots with a graceful rhythm that keeps the anxieties of the plot warmly sedated. And while some plotting revolving Stoll's gangster threatens to turn the story sour, the jazz-scored tone seems relatively light as it swings through the tenuous romance between Bobby and Vonnie.

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Late in the film, one of the minor characters remarks, "Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' But the examined one is no bargain." As a capping line, it sums up the way that Allen functions in this highly frothy comedy, in which the stakes seem utterly superfluous until a final cross-dissolve suddenly hits an unexpected emotional cue. As a writer-director, Allen's films have constantly found ways to turn bemusement into the blues; playfulness into pathos. Each one of his films carry expected movements and zingers, but this relative lack of suspense has formed something of a comforting pleasure in which he sneaks in emotional honesty in unexpected ways.

Café Society opens everywhere on Friday.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.