Every year, like clockwork, Woody Allen releases a new film. And it seems like the quality of his films keeps getting worse. Café Society brings in the usual: The big name stars, the idyllic setting, two people falling in love. These elements are usually enough to do the trick, but Allen has somehow run his creative streak into the ground. Simply put, Café Society is plagued by creative fatigue, dull characters, and side plots that take away from a film that is almost one big side plot in and of itself.
Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) comes from a Jewish New York City family. His mother, in her attempt to help get him a job, calls up her brother Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a big-time Hollywood agent. So Bobby packs his stuff and moves out to Los Angeles for a while. His uncle is constantly busy and doesn’t really make any time for him, but he eventually helps Bobby pick up a job. While working in his uncle’s office, Bobby meets Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and he’s immediately smitten. Vonnie tells him from the start that she can’t be involved with him beyond friendship because she has a boyfriend. What Bobby doesn’t know, however, is that Vonnie’s boyfriend turns out to be Phil. After finding out, Bobby moves back to New York City and decides to help his older brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), run his nightclubs. Somehow, he manages not to get involved in his brother’s more illegal dealings. While at one of the clubs, he meets, courts, and quickly marries Veronica (Blake Lively), who just happens to share the same name as his former girlfriend. But will he ever move on from loving Vonnie?
To say Café Society lacks any true substance would be accurate. Allen continuously revives the same kinds of characters. Characters who are seeking something, or someone, they have never encountered, always in somewhat of a naive approach. The situations they’re in may be only slightly different, but this isn’t saying much because they’re always, always the same semi-pretentious, surface-level characters no matter the setting. Café Society is set in late 1930s Hollywood, with all the style and glamour that this world encompasses. Yet it feels empty, with Allen going for part cynical and part dreamy, and neither of the two working in the film’s favor. Are we supposed to have sympathy for these characters? It sure doesn’t feel that way. Every scene feels clipped and because there’s no pull toward any singular person, the film feels oddly long for a run time of only an hour and a half.
Allen’s biggest misstep is the narration. His voice carries throughout the film’s scenes, practically giving us a play-by-play of what is going on and what the characters are thinking. His narration is lackluster and is blatantly lazy writing. Instead of showing us and delving further into character development through interaction, Allen chooses to tell us. Through the narration, we also receive loads of information on things and characters that are rather useless to the plot and only serve to waste time. Café Society is filled with ridiculous and horribly cheesy lines that even all the film’s big-name actors can’t save.
Ultimately, Café Society is drab and filled with a lot of problems: Lackluster characters, bad dialogue, too many minor plots, and narration more concerned with telling and not showing. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who I’ve always found to have superb chemistry when they’re together onscreen, are particularly good. Steve Carell is the older man who gets the girl (like in many, many Woody Allen movies), but his character doesn’t bring much to the table. Far more surprising is Blake Lively’s character, who’s barely in the film and exists only to be married to Eisenberg. Together, they have an onscreen dynamic.
In the last fifteen years, Woody Allen has made a few memorable films, but the remainder have been terrible and agonizing to sit through. Unfortunately, Café Society is another addition to that very long list.
Photos courtesy of Lionsgate
Top: Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart