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Café Society – Movie Review: “another bland Woody Allen comedy for the pile”

7 September, 2016 — by Ben Rabinovich0

There are several things guaranteed in life: death, taxes and a new Woody Allen film every year. Unfortunately his latest film Café Society demonstrates that any guarantee of quality has long since expired.

Woody Allen's Cafe Society film poster

The older Allen gets, the more wistful his protagonists become. Recently, to go alongside the quintessential Allen existential crisis, they have become acutely chafed by geography, believing they are wasting away in one place while fiercely yearning for another. A place they associate with different people, a different period – where maybe even they could be different.

For Gil in the excellent Midnight in Paris (2011), it’s 1920s Paris that provides sweet respite from writer’s block and general dissatisfaction with his American career. For the academic Abe in An Irrational Man (2015) it’s a new university and a much younger woman that jumpstarts his lust for life, sex and other, more sinister, activities.

In Café Society, it’s New York and a disconnect from his father’s profession that initially drives Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) to leave the Big Apple for the eternal sunshine and tan suits of Los Angeles. His uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is a successful movie agent and Bobby begins to run small errands for him. Gradually, he starts moving up in the world, mingling with Oscar winners at parties drenched in sunshine and champagne.

However, it’s hard to immerse oneself in the glitzy world of 1930s East and West Coasts, because trying to work out why on earth anyone would like Bobby is too much of a distraction.

Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby in Woody Allen's Café Society wearing white tails at a party

Beautiful women (Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively) fall in love with him, powerful people (Parker Posey) take him under their wing and he becomes his uncle’s confidant. One struggles to understand what it is Dorfman does to inspire such avuncular responses. It certainly can’t be anything he says. He is a frustratingly anodyne character who utters things like, “I’m half bored, half fascinated.” Everyone knows that someone who can’t decipher which pole on the spectrum of interest they are on is not to be trusted.

It doesn’t help that Eisenberg, whether voluntarily or simply by being around Allen and his writing, is an uncomfortably uncanny stand-in for the director. Actors who play Allen’s male protagonists are famously stand-ins for their creator, but they frequently manage to leave their own mark on the role. In fact, the role requires it.

Gil is as much the languid Owen Wilson ‘Allen’ as he is the neurotic Woody Allen. Equally, Abe is a potent mix of Allen’s neuroticism and Joaquin Phoenix’s suaveness. Eisenberg, however, leaves no indelible mark on Bobby, and the character feels like a Woody Allen caricature, rattling off grimace-inducing superficial lines like, “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer,” and having neurotic encounters with prostitutes.

jesse eisenberg standing next to Kristen Stewart in Woody Allen's Café Society

At least Bobby’s offensive inoffensiveness is palliated by standout performances from the likes of Stewart and Carell. The two actors admittedly do not have too much to preoccupy themselves with, but they add some much needed edge and steel.

Stewart’s Vonnie in particular, caught in an awkward love triangle with Bobby and Phil, manages to make indecision, duplicity and mistakes look understandable and human. It’s her most convincing role to date. Even Blake Lively, fresh from the well-received duel with sharks, The Shallows, is noteworthy as Veronica, Dorfman’s New York love interest. It seems everyone has some interesting characteristic apart from the protagonist.

Café Society’s downfall is the unshakeable feeling that this is Woody Allen on autopilot. The jokes are half-hearted, the themes are adumbrated but not fleshed out. Crises, arguments and deaths occur, but the drama is neatly side-stepped and any edges are quickly sanded off.

When Dorfman returns to New York – the grim to LA’s glam – he starts working for his criminal brother Ben (Corey Stoll). Ben is supposed to personify both the bitterness of the city and of the film; his murderous ways a New York disease compared to the saccharine society of LA. But Allen makes no effort to make it infectious. The nastiness and violence is very localised and Corey Stoll feels wasted in the role. Dorfman’s parents are on hand to act as Jewish stereotypes and New York itself is reduced to nothing more than a bit-part role.

Café Society is by no means Allen’s worst film, but its pussyfooting around real comedy and real drama certainly makes us more decisive than Bobby Dorfman… He may be “half bored, half fascinated” but we’re just fully bored. 2/5

Check out more of the latest cinema releases in our movie reviews section, including the breathtakingly intense Don’t Breathe.

Café Society

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