Woody Allen has suffered his fair share of hits and misses throughout the years. However, never has his career hit such a tumultuous patch than the rut he’s currently stuck in. After gifting us with his best, most fully realized film in ages, BLUE JASMINE, the auteur fell back into the formulaic territory he’d explored in better, stronger films. His previous two, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT and IRRATIONAL MAN, both recycled familiar themes and tropes. His latest, however, blessedly diverges from his norms, but the result is so strikingly bland, cold and unfocused, it should be pronounced dead-on-arrival.
Bobby Dorfman (Jessie Eisenberg) is hightailing it out of the Bronx, away from his loving but bickering parents (played by Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin, who frankly deserves better material than this), seeking sanctuary amidst the glitter and glamour of golden-era Hollywood. He goes to work for his uncle, high-powered agent Phil (Steve Carell), and soon makes friends with socialites Rad (Parker Posey, who is always incandescent) and her husband Steve (Paul Schneider). But no one captures Bobby’s attention quite like Phil’s vivacious assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who happens to be seeing someone else. However, settling for friendship leads to a real pickle of a situation that sends Bobby back to New York and working for his brother, mobster Ben (Corey Stoll), at a nightclub where gossip is downed just as fast as the martinis. He’s quickly swept up into the seductive world of high society, populated by colorful characters with crazy pasts.
Narratively speaking, CAFÉ SOCIETY is a disjointed mess. It’s two stories smashed into one – with neither being particularly great or even original. The connective tissue is flimsy at best. The first half borrows heavily – and I mean heavily – from THE APARTMENT. It also takes a while for it to take shape. Most of it feels as if it’s treading water until we get to the love triangle aspect. Sure, it’s easy to be attracted to the glowing warmth of Vittorio Storaro’s saturated and sparkling cinematography, not to mention Hollywood landmarks and our nostalgic feelings towards the bygone era. Production design by Santo Loquasto and costume design by Suzy Benzinger earn the highest marks, keeping us kvelling on the beauty when the story fails us. Though the second half is just as aesthetically pleasing, it introduces us – TWICE! – to a slew of people who breeze in and out that we don’t care one iota about. And these introductions play out like speed bumps during the story’s escalating momentum.
This now marks Eisenberg and Stewart’s third, and perhaps least successful, pairing. Of their three outings together, the ranking would look like this: ADVENTURELAND > AMERICAN ULTRA > CAFÉ SOCIETY. Despite their clear chemistry attempting to shine through the mirth, Allen’s script holds the dynamic duo back from truly clicking with the audience. They are talented actors but even they can only do so much with lackluster material. Stoll, who is a magnificent actor, doesn’t come close to wowing us as he did in Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. His character is told almost exclusively through Allen’s narration. Had the narration been saturated with Allen’s trademark wit, this technique may have worked. As it stands his witticisms are few and far between. Blake Lively, who plays Bobby’s shiksa goddess Veronica, is fantastic but is dealt short shrift. She virtually disappears once her character becomes a mother (Side note: thanks for that subtle statement on motherhood, Woody. Like you’re even reading this anyways. But if you are, let’s have coffee and discuss this).
Just to give you a better picture: the guy at my critic screenings who usually loudly “hmms” and “uh-huhs” at any observation made was silent during this film. That says a lot. Listen, I only wish this turned out like the page-turning novel Allen had in his head. Unfortunately, it stalls far too often, making me want to put the book down at page 20. If Allen’s message here is that you’ve got to leave in order to find home, it’s a trite one.
2 out of 5
CAFÉ SOCIETY opens on July 15.