Cafe Society (2016) / Comedy-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking
Running Time: 96 min.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Jeannie Berlin, Corey Stoll, Blake Lively, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Ken Stott, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Woody Allen (voice)
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen

Review published July 29, 2016

A rare Woody Allen (Irrational Man, Magic in the Moonlight)  film set mainly in Los Angeles, though the cast mainly features Jewish characters either from or currently living in his old stomping grounds of New York, Cafe Society has a different look and vibe than we've seen before from the prolific veteran auteur (he's working with a different cinematographer in Vittorio Storaro (Bulworth, Dick Tracy) , as well as his first film in digital), but, at its core, it's yet another case of Allen exploring themes he's been dealing with since he first began as a filmmaker nearly five decades ago, especially in terms of themes of infidelity, and of successful older married men having an inability to resist women of lesser age and station.

Set in the 1930s, Jesse Eisenberg (Batman v Superman, American Ultra) stars as Bobby Dorfman, a young Bronxite and aspiring writer who calls on his distant uncle Phil (Carell, The Big Short) to hook him up with a job in his top-flight talent agency in Hollywood.  Shortly after relocating, Phil sends his assistant, the decidedly glamour-averse Vonnie (Stewart, Anesthesia) , to show his young nephew around the town, and the two soon hit it off as friends.  However, friendship turns to feelings for Bobby, but she says she's seeing someone else, though Bobby doesn't know that her beau is, in fact, married uncle Phil.  However, when Phil looks like he can't quite pull the trigger and leave his wife for Vonnie once and for all, Bobby gets his chance at burgeoning love, though things get far more complicated when all of the players begin putting the pieces of the love triangle's thorny entanglements together.

The main issue with Cafe Society is that it features characters who continuous profess feelings of affection and love for one another, and yet, very little of what we see these actors see or do makes us feel like they're truly invested in each other emotionally, even when Allen is clearly going for moments of strong passionate effect.  A good part of this is because the characters are either sketchily written, and what we do know of them doesn't exactly endear us toward rooting them on to happiness.  Also, none of the on-screen pairings seems to work from a chemistry standpoint, though Eisenberg and Stewart, who've now worked together in three films, do share some natural comedic repartee.  Eisenberg already rings in his own trademark nebbish facial ticks and quirky body mannerisms to be able to deliver Allen's dialogue without seeming like an Allen replacement, while Stewart, though too contemporary to feel like a natural 1930s woman, does have a fine on-screen persona within the limited framework for her character, though she isn't helped much by Allen's thin characterization to make the decisions she makes within the story at all relatable.  Carrell, it should be noted, filled in for the originally cast (supposedly due to scheduling conflicts, though rumored to be fired due to unprofessional behavior) Bruce Willis during the production.

Woody Allen doesn't appear in the cast of actors, but he does narrate, somewhat ambivalently, and curiously in a lifeless manner, as if done at the last moment while sitting in the editing room wondering how to tie all of his story threads together.  He pads out his slight idea for a story by piling on various side stories involving Bobby's gangster brother Ben (Stoll, Black Mass) and his roughhousing, as well as his older sister, Evelyn (Lennick, A Serious Man), her intellectual husband Leonard (Kunken, Bridge of Spies) , and their inability to find a way to get their rude neighbor to stop making their home life a living hell.  Much of the dialogue is peppered with non-stop name-dropping about stars of the era, none of which are ever represented on the screen to draw us in to its authenticity (characters are constantly told that <insert golden-age Tinseltown celeb name here> is around somewhere, presumably milling about).  You'd never know that the rest of the country is actually in the throes of the Great Depression, which further alienates us to the character sympathy in regards to selfish and egotistical people who aspire to live the high life without regard for others, and it also doesn't help that the lighthearted and occasionally quippy film is devoid of solid laughs.

As a nostalgia piece, it's a nice looking feature in terms of gorgeous costumes and opulent set design (though its dependence on just a handful of locales speaks to the very limited budget), and the soundtrack of old jazz standards, which is an Allen staple, does give the tempo some buoyancy.  However, as we don't believe the romance and, as presented, feel a bit uneasy about the cavalier ease by which these characters enter in and out of relationships while still already in committed partnerships with those who don't deserve such treatment, Cafe Society fails in its quest to make us care about them.  While it isn't entirely unwatchable, the narrative's competing story arcs fail to properly congeal and the entire production ends up feeling pointless. I'd put this in my bottom five when ranking Woody Allen's work.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo