With Café Society, Woody Allen continues his career trends: rehashing plots from former films, treating women as beautiful objects that are only occasionally attainable, and filtering his neurosis through a character that’s basically him played by another actor. In this case, the actor is Jesse Eisenberg, who comes across as peak “nice guy” intellectual when his character Bobby moves to Hollywood after growing bored of New York. To call his characterization unbearable isn’t a stretch and, if not for the rest of the cast and genuine chemistry with his co-stars, the film would be just as insufferable.
But in both Hollywood and New York, the stars shine and so do the women, with Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively proving the ultimate beauties to Eisenberg’s schlubby protagonist. As a secretary for his big-time agent uncle (played by Carell with such a casualness that you wouldn’t believe he was the same man who’d overacted his last few roles to death), Stewart is everything to Café Society. Not only is she the driving force of what little narrative there is, Vittorio Storaro and Allen seem determined to keep the camera on her as much as possible. Even when Lively, who manages to make lines like “I find Jews exotic and mysterious” sound less abysmal, is on screen, the narrative and the memories of how Stewart’s face were framed just minutes ago linger and make one long for simpler times.
Nostalgia for the past works well on a smaller scale, specifically in how the second act hones in on the way the relationship that once existed between Eisenberg and Stewart’s characters affects them now in the aftermath, but there’s little to nothing interesting about the way Allen frames his 1930s period comedy. Characters casually joke about and name-drop Errol Flynn, Joan Crawford, and Hedy Lamarr, among others, but nothing comes of the setting outside of gorgeous production design and costuming, often unfortunately washed out by the aggressively orange lighting of Hollywood compared to the cool tones of New York (which feels almost too on-the-nose, even for Allen).
Where Midnight in Paris dedicated so much of its running time to establishing the world and making historical figures feel just as amusing as the new fictional additions, the film gets lost in borrowing from one too many wrong Allen films. One of the most frustrating inclusions is that of a mob subplot involving Corey Stoll as Eisenberg’s nightclub-running older brother Ben. Each cutaway from Hollywood to New York for a brief glimpse of his character, accompanied by Allen’s grating narration that exists solely for exposition and poor narration propulsion, feels as aimless as the film does. There’s a great film somewhere in Café Society and the way it navigates the relationships between men and women and their affairs, but without more focus and dedication to the bittersweet narrative strands that actually work (and humor that doesn’t feel like it was never rehearsed before it was read), Woody Allen ends up with a passable mess instead of something better.
Directed by Woody Allen; written by Woody Allen; starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Sheryl Lee; 96 minutes.
Café Society is currently experiencing a limited theatrical release and hits Blu-ray and DVD on October 18th.