After proclaiming himself to be the “one of the most june people in all of the Russias” in Love and Death, Woody Allen has finally reached jejunosity in Café Society.
Woody Allen’s latest annual offering Café Society follows Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) in his discovery of 1930’s Hollywood. Knowing nobody, Bobby attempts to integrate himself by getting a job from his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a top Hollywood casting agent. After becoming Phil’s errand boy, Bobby falls in love with Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) who likes him but is already in a relationship.
Café Society is a bizarrely hypocritical film; it attempts to comment on the superficiality of socialites, yet fails to provide any characters or plot with depth. Bobby enters the film naïve and unassuming, only to exit the film naïve and unassuming. His relationship with Vonnie is jejune, and even with the addition of a mystery lover for Vonnie, their relationship continues to be bland and inconsequential. The shallowness of the lovers is reflected in the uninspired performances from Eisenberg and Stewart.
Eisenberg returns to play Eisenberg, a character that is very hit-or-miss. While he is capable of slightly modifying his basic performance, to both terrific and terrible outcomes (The Double and Batman V Superman, respectively), he is unable to add anything to the character of Bobby who is more of a blank slate than Emmet from The Lego Movie.
Likewise, Stewart retrogresses to the emotionless acting she is often criticized for. Half of the runtime I see Stewart trying to look in love and the other half I just see Stewart. Gone is the chemistry she shared with Eisenberg in American Ultra, with her character being less of a character and more of a plot device.
Allen finds himself a beautiful setting in 1930’s Hollywood, as seen by the elegant cinematography, but he is unable to do anything with it. He crafts a little love story, but it is short-lived. Attempting to change direction, Allen drags the love story across to New York, an unnoticeable shift in setting since New York is never given a semblance of personality. However, by then, Allen is rushing through plot points, resulting in a second half that is even more haphazard than the first.
At the end of the film, Bobby encounters Vonnie, who has fully transitioned into a Hollywood socialite, and fails to see the woman he first fell in love with. He remarks that the transition “would be comical if it weren’t so sad,” an oddly self-referential line.
Now I’m pretty good at recognizing the voices of actors, whether the film be animated or not. Recognition is a simple pleasure and I pride myself in my mastery of it. Yet it wasn’t until halfway through the film that I realized that the narrator of Café Society was Woody Allen. And it was at this point that I remembered I was even watching a Woody Allen film. After going Bananas for Annie Hall at Midnight in Paris, I couldn’t even recognize Allen in the shallow end of his career.
After 50 years of directing, Allen has reached the law of diminishing returns. Like Old Nehamkin, I couldn’t believe what I was saw. It was so uncharacteristically insipid and superficial that it “would be comical if it weren’t so sad.” What made it so sad, however, was that it wasn’t comical.
Although Allen had abandoned slapstick comedy a long time ago, his mastery of dialogue fused with his quirky humor always held strong. Blue Jasmine, which came out in 2013, also dealt with a New York socialite, yet it managed to add complexity to the protagonist’s superficiality as well as have a layer of dark humor. In contrast, Café Society seemed more like a parody of a Woody Allen film.
The film ends with the characters celebrating New Years, with a shot of Bobby reflecting on the past year and looking towards the future. It insinuated that Bobby has learned something from dealing with socialites, but who’s to say? Perhaps he stays in café society, or perhaps he leaves to the Russias. Whatever Bobby decides to do in his future career, I wish Woody all the best.