Some critics say the films of Woody Allen are an acquired taste, but his latest work, Café Society, is sure to further divide audiences who simply want a sense of resolution (or at least completion) from their time at the cinema.
Allen has won four Oscars and has close to 200 award nominations, so I won’t claim to have seen the entirety of his big screen output. I like his early comedies (Bananas, Sleeper, Annie Hall, and Manhattan), but find his more recent work (Celebrity, Scoop, Blue Jasmine) more appealing because of the cast than what the auteur had to offer, so casting Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in a period romantic comedy seemed like a good combo platter when deciding what to order from among the movies advertised on the marquee menu.
However, like most things which look good on paper, the real deal is far less appealing when put on your plate.
Café Society is the story of young Woody Allen surrogate/nebbish Bronx native Bobby Stern (Eisenberg), who leaves the safety of his New York home to seek fame and fortune under the wing of his West Coast uncle/movie mogul (played by Steve Carell) during the Hollywood heyday of the 1930s. Bobby wrangles a job doing errands for his relative and befriends the waifish Vonnie (Stewart), who also works in his uncle’s spacious studio office.
Bobby quickly falls for Vonnie, but she insists they remain friends because she has an unseen boyfriend. The two bond over the flirty appetizers, loaded inebriations, and fatty deserts associated with classic Hollywood moviemaking until the issue of the other man becomes an unavoidable obstacle to both Bobby’s upward mobility and his plans to marry the woman of his dreams.
If you can’t figure out the identity of that obstacle, go back and read the paragraph above a second time. (HINT: it’s the only other person named in my plot summary and should not be a surprise at all. Screw your spoiler alert: its Bobby’s uncle).
And that’s pretty much the whole movie. We reach the climax of the story about an hour in, and while there is a little more heartbreak in the remaining 30 minutes the story abruptly retreats back to the jazz age of 1930s NYC, where the writer/director has the audacity to end his story without giving any of the characters any sense of resolution. Seriously, I kept waiting for a post-credits scene like this was The Avengers to let me know what the hell happened.
If it was anyone but Allen studios would insist the story be completed, but as this is not the case the audience is left to assume our pal Woody is making some sort of grand statement about love and loss. It leaves viewers with a bad taste in their mouths, as if they were force fed a bitter aperitif they had not expected or even ordered.
I disagree. I think Allen just wanted to take his shot at making “Eisenstew” a marketable movie commodity after several previous bad servings. Their first cinematic coupling (2009’s Adventureland) showcased Eisenberg’s understated virgin romantic bedside across from Stewart’s patented disaffected youth stare, but I had hoped we were done with that after last year’s disjointed American Ultra tried to make Eisenberg an action hero while Stewart did her best just to stay awake.
Unfortunately, the third time was not the charm. Here our protagonist is more earnest and vulnerable than previous Eisenberg acting excursions, but Stewart still never seems to be on the same page. Their chemistry continues to be one-sided, but at least this time she tucks her hair behind her ear far less than in the Twilight films. While the actress appears more mature on screen than ever before, the audience is never served a compelling reason why Bobby is so in love with the object of his maligned affections. Stewart may not act as dead here on screen as she has so many times before, but she is far from a breathtaking or even involved paramour during her time in Café Society.
Eisenberg does acquit himself better than he did earlier this summer as Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman (YAWN of Justice), but he still comes across as a Woody Allen clone awash in ’30s-period wardrobe. The costuming, set design, and classic movie references in the film are a treat for those who will appreciate them, but sadly these are only the trappings of a good movie and by themselves do not a good movie make. It is as if Allen ordered all the delicious side dishes at a fancy restaurant, but the chef made the mistake of never preparing the ingredients of the main meal.
Carell’s character works best when awash in the name-dropping game of early Hollywood, but when it comes time to show something personal or even painful he all too easily becomes Michael Scott from The Office, and the results are as bland and unexciting as blank copier paper. His role is the cinematic equivalent of milquetoast and is about as appealing.
If you like the films of Woody Allen, you’ll probably enjoy Café Society as much as any of his other movies. However, if you jettison the importance he automatically inherits from most critics and hold him to the task of simply telling a story from start to finish, you will want to order something else off the cinematic menu at your local multiplex.
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carrel
Running time: 96 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mild violence and suggestive material
Celluloid Scoreboard: D- for trying to make ‘Eisenstew’ a thing and serving up an incomplete movie meal without an ending or even much of a main course.