Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Bobby Dorfman), Kristen Stewart (Vonnie - Veronica), Jeannie Berlin (Rose), Steve Carell (Phil), Blake Lively (Veronica Hayes), Parker Posey (Rad), Corey Stoll (Ben), Ken Stott (Marty), Anna Camp (Candy), Paul Schneider (Steve), Stephen Kunken (Leonard), Sari Lennick (Evelyn Dorfman), Woody Allen (Narrator).
We all know that late Woody Allen – when that era started differs for some, but for me it’s everything after 1997’s Deconstructing Harry – varies greatly in quality, with the hits, misses and mediocrities generally coming in equal numbers over the last 20 years. Café Society is his third miss in a row – something that even in this late period, hasn’t happened too often (again, that can depend on who you ask, but for me the only other 0-3 streak came from 2001-2003, with The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending and Anything Else – and that is even with me somewhat enjoying the latter two, at least more than most). What makes Café Society a bigger disappointment than either Magic in the Moonlight (2014) or Irrational Man (2015) is that this one at least the potential to be something special. Magic in the Moonlight is another one of his “magical” comedies – he’s always made those, and even in his peak years, they were often among his lazy misfires (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy or Alice for example) – and Magic in the Moonlight felt like one of those as well. Irrational Man was Woody in Crimes and Misdemeanors/Match Point mode – which is always one of my favorites – but the fact that it was rather dull and lazy didn’t faze me too much – after all, he has perhaps returned to that well too often anyway – and even that won’t dull just how good Crimes & Misdemeanors is (for my money, it’s his best film ever). But Café Society really did have the potential to be something special. Its Allen’s best looking film in years – legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro convinced Allen to shoot digitally for the first time, and the result is beautiful, using different color palettes for New York and Los Angeles, and making the always beautiful Kristen Stewart even more so. The story itself – one of unrequited or at least ill-timed love, should be right up Allen’s alley – the final shots should hit you in the heart, and make you weep. But it doesn’t. Like so much of Allen’s late output, it feels like Café Society needed another draft at the screenplay stage – to clean up the dialogue that either rings false, or feels like Allen quoting himself (or worse, like an untalented writer quoting Allen), to excise unnecessary scenes and subplots, and in general, to make a better, leaner movie. Café Society is more disappointing than most of his late misfires not because its worse, but because it should have been great – something the likes of Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man (and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, To Rome with Love, etc.) were never going to be.
The movie is set in the 1930s, and centers on Bobby Dorfman (Jessie Eisenberg) – a Jew from New York, who moves out to Hollywood to work for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) – a big time agent. Dorfman ends up falling in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), Phil’s assistant, unaware that Phil has been having an affair with her, and plans on leaving his wife for her – although he’s been gun shy on actually doing that. Bobby and Vonnie are well suited for each other – they both Hollywood is shallow and laugh at all the phoniness they see around them – and Vonnie, during a break with Phil, actually does fall for Bobby herself. Then Phil wants her back – and, well, Phil is rich and successful, and Bobby has no idea what he’s going to do with his life – except go back to New York. That’s where much of the second half of the film takes place – with Bobby in New York, running a nightclub owned by his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll) – and making a success of himself, even getting married and having children. But neither Bobby nor Vonnie can shake the feeling that perhaps, they should have ended up together.
As Dorfman, Eisenberg gets better as the movie progresses. In the early scenes in the film, Eisenberg falls into the trap that so many actors do when they are cast as the “Woody-surrogate” character, and try to do an impression of Allen. This rarely works, and is often more distracting than anything else (one of the reasons Owen Wilson worked so well in Midnight in Paris is that even though he is clearly the Woody surrogate in the movie, he is in no way trying to imitate Allen – he is his regular Owen Wilson-like self, and it works beautifully). It’s a distraction to see Eisenberg try to be Woody, I think, because it resembles the uncanny valley in animation – the closer you get to perfection in the imitation, the more glaring the little misses become. Eisenberg settles down as the movie progresses though – in part, I think, because Dorfman himself grows more confident, taking him further away from Woody-like neurosis. Kristen Stewart continues her string of strong performances as Vonnie though – avoiding the traps that many actresses in Allen’s films seemingly fall into, making their characters shallow or shrill, or both. In those early scenes, Vonnie really does seem like Bobby’s perfect girl – yet she never quite becomes “female perfection personified” (something that happens too often in modern comedies). She is insecure, but in a charming and natural way. She even makes her transformation later in the film – where she has seemingly embraced everything she once mocked, seem natural as well – she hasn’t really changed deep down, but she has taken the path of least resistance. Allen and Storaro loving photograph Stewart, not in a creepy, pervert way, but in a way that idolize and idealize her. It’s a great performance.
Had Allen just stuck to telling this story, it may well have worked. But he throws in a number of unnecessary scenes and subplots that add nothing to the overall film. While the significant others to the two main characters are necessary, neither Steve Carell as Phil (a last minute replacement, when Bruce Willis dropped out) or Blake Lively as Veronica – Bobby’s eventual wife – really do much to leave an impression. Worse is everything that surrounds the two main characters that don’t belong. An early scene between Dorfman and a prostitute – gamely played by Anna Camp – seems to be beamed in from a different movie, and neither furthers the plot or deepens the themes, and given that we never see Camp’s character again, one wonders why it’s there. Then there is Bobby’s brother Ben – played fairly well by Corey Stoll, doing a decent version of a gangster from a 1930s Warner Brothers movie. But why is Ben here? Why is there so much violence and killing when he’s onscreen? What does that have to do with the rest of the film? And why is Bobby’s sister married to a philosophy professor, who is given lines like “Socrates said the unexamined life is nor worth living” in a way that not even a notice screenwriter would keep in his final draft. Yes, the tin eared dialogue runs throughout the movie – Eisenberg and especially Stewart sell it however, whereas no one else can (to be fair, I think the rest of the cast gets line far worse than either of the leads do).
Café Society is a frustrating experience, because I wanted to like it much more than I did. I was enthralled by the photography, which is beautiful, and by Stewart, who succeeds in making Vonnie seem like a real, three dimensional woman, which actresses often do not do in Allen’s films. There is so much to like about Café Society – but everything that is off about the movie hurts it too much to make it a good movie. Just when things start to get good, Allen throws in another unnecessary scene, or flashes to Benny killing someone, or Bobby’s brother-in-law waxing philosophically, and the movie grind to a halt. I am used to being let down by Allen films these days – but I am not used to be let down in this way by Allen films. Café Society should have been a late career highlight for Allen – instead of another mediocrity.