by Ken Bakely
DISCLAIMER: This review contains mild spoilers.
What have we come to expect from Woody Allen in recent years? For better or for worse, we’ve designated him to a type: nice, pleasant, mostly easygoing movies. Pretty scenery, big stars, occasional period settings. Some of them are pretty great, others are just alright. Café Society fits squarely in the latter camp – there aren’t any truly outstanding performances, nor is the script especially well-developed or anything beyond vaguely predictable. It’s a 96 minute trifle, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. You won’t go away disappointed, but there’s nothing here that’s particularly memorable.
Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is a young man from New York City who moves out to Los Angeles, hoping to pursue a career as a writer. It’s the late 1930s, and the Golden Age’s stars and filmmakers are either already active or just getting started. The biz is good, but it’s hard to break in. Maybe it’s a little bit easier if you can engage in some nice, old-fashioned nepotism though: Bobby’s uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), is a big-name agent who reluctantly agrees to give his nephew an entry-level job at his office. Soon, Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a secretary who came to town dreaming of lofty goals. They bond over their shared realization that not everything is as good as it’s cracked up to be. She’s down-to-earth, and he’s attracted to that genuine nature. But there’s a problem – she has a boyfriend of sorts, an older, married man who has been seeing her behind his wife’s back. He plans to split up with his wife and marry Vonnie. And did I mention that his name is Phil?
The script for Café Society is less concerned with enveloping itself in this scenario and more focused on sculpting out its characters – this is often a recurring theme when it comes to Allen’s approach to writing. Many storylines that would otherwise constitute entire films in the hands of other screenwriters are little more than means to an end here. There’s that A-plot, mixed in with surrounding storylines about Bobby’s family back in New York, and his growing turmoil over staying in California or returning home. Each individual situation is brought up with a fair amount of vigor, but is equally resolved or merged into something else with relative ease. Allen designates himself narrator, and so his voice occasionally pokes in and out of the proceedings, further cementing his laid-back approach to the plot.
He also furthers his position as an actor’s director. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are a fine leading pair, and as nicely as they work together, they also flourish in their own scenes – Eisenberg’s rapidfire, neurotic mumblings make him Allen’s proxy, to great comedic effect when appropriate, and Stewart proves once again that she is a pro at nonverbal acting, carrying complex responses in studied, engaged looks. It feels stupid to have to keep reiterating that she is a good actress, but the cloud of Twilight seems to be perpetual. A supporting cast – which features Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as Bobby’s parents, Corey Stoll as his mobster brother, and Sari Lennick as his sister, who promptly enlists the services of said mobster brother to “disappear” an aggressive neighbor – provide for some wonderfully funny sidetracks and background coloring.
But as well as Café Society may operate within itself, I’m not sure what it actually manages to accomplish. Surely – with its large cast, multiple story threads, and detail-perfect setpieces – it should feel like something more than a breath of pleasant air. Recent Allen hits, like Blue Jasmine, worked because they were more than just a face-value walk in the park. There’s nothing wrong with this movie per se, but it feels frustratingly worked-over, giving the illusion of something exemplary wandering out beyond the horizon. One can live on sturdy banter and cutesy coincidences for a while, but in this case, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it could have all been part of a much bigger patchwork. It’s good, but never great.