Café Society (2016)

Writer & Director: Woody Allen
Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Anna Camp.

There are great Woody Allen movies, fine Woody Allen movies, and awful Woody Allen movies. The director makes a movie every single year without exception, so it makes sense that not everything he churns out is a perfect masterpiece. For every Annie Hall there is a Melinda and Melinda. Part of the fun in watching the director’s movies is being surprised by which category the film will fit into. I keep returning to his films because from time to time the movie is so spectacular, it makes watching the crappy ones worth it. That said, the great ones always have one very important thing: a great cast, or at the very least a performance so breathtaking that the viewer can only focus on the magic happening on screen. That was the case with Blue Jasmine, for example, a movie in which Cate Blanchett was so amazing, after seeing it in theaters in summer I declared her (correctly) the Oscar winner, months before any other contender would show up on movie screens. Café Society belongs to the middle category: the movie that is fine, nothing special, watchable but highly forgettable. So forgettable, in fact, that I saw the movie this summer in theaters and forgot that I hadn’t written about it on this blog, and since I vowed to write about every single television show, movie, or book I consumed, I am making up for that forgetfulness now.

As I said, a Woody Allen movie’s success hinges on great performances, and unfortunately this film has none to give. The first mistake, in my opinion, was choosing Jesse Eisenberg as the lead of the film. He is the only character that really matters in the entire movie, appearing in nearly every single scene of the film, and that was just a recipe for disaster. Maybe I’m wrong (even though the dozen of friends I saw the movie with agreed with me), but Eisenberg’s bumbly, nervous, and bordering on stuttering schtick is getting really really old. He’s not an actor, because an actor is supposed to be able to erase one’s mannerisms and ticks and perform different people. Eisenberg does not do that. He just plays himself – just sometimes with longer hair, or as a magician, or as someone who hates Superman, but it’s always, ultimately, Jesse Eisenberg.

So in this movie Jesse Eisenberg goes by the name of Bobby Dorfman, and the actor pretends like he is in the 1930s and goes to Hollywood in an attempt to make it in the movie world by working for his successful agent uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell, one of the only good things about the movie). While running errands for his uncle, Bobby/Jesse falls for his uncle’s secretary Vonnie Sybil (Kristen Stewart), a wannabe actress. Stewart regresses a bit in this film after the strides forward she made in her career with choices like Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria, but who could blame her for wanting to appear in a Woody Allen movie, even if it’s not one of his good ones? The role is thankless and abstract at best, she is the object of desire with no discernible personality – something all the female characters have in common in this film, which is weird because Allen usually works wonders for actresses, pulling the best out of so many before.

The movie switches locations between Los Angeles and New York City, the glamour of Hollywood and the crime of prohibition-era Manhattan. A highlight is Corey Stoll as Bobby/Jesse’s criminal brother Ben, and he adds a little light in an otherwise murky and kinda boring story. Speaking of boring, Blake Lively is in this movie too. Enough about her though.

Overall the film is a bit disappointing and not very interesting, but it’s a short 96 minutes long and was a welcome respite from this past summer’s heat. It will hold me over until the next great film by the director, who hopefully still has a couple of surprises left in his arsenal.

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