We’ve long reached the point when a new Woody Allen movie isn’t something to get excited about anymore, but it’s also certainly not something to dread either. This year he returns with Café Society, another Allen movie we can add to his recent list of his films that are decent enough, but nothing particularly special.
The director is not on-screen this time (although he does narrate), with Jesse Eisenberg stepping in to be Café Society’s 1930s Woody surrogate, a young Jewish New Yorker called Bobby, who’s a bit lost in life and so decides to head to LA. His Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is a high-powered movie agent who Bobby hopes can help him get his start. Phil hires Bobby to do odd jobs, which brings him into the sphere of Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).
After a few false starts, the two begin to fall for one another, but what Bobby doesn’t know is that Vonnie is seeing his married Uncle Phil, and she has long hoped the agent will leave his wife for her.
The action then jumps forwards a few years to when Bobby is back in New York and finding success working in a nightclub owned by his gangster brother and his associates. Although he has a wife (Blake Lively) and a child, ghosts of the past re-emerge.
As with many of Woody’s more recent efforts, Café Society shows a lot of promise and it’s all quite pleasant and enjoyable enough to watch. However, it also lacks bite and feels like it’s not really gotten that deep into its ideas.
It’s a movie about the decisions we make and the bittersweet regrets that will live with us for the rest of our lives. In fact, it’s almost brave for a man who famously left his wife for his adoptive stepdaughter to make a wistful movie about the sadness of not following your heart. However, while it makes for a pleasant enough diversion, neither the story nor the characters are anything particularly new or different, or indeed imbued with the magic Woody used to trade in.
Lucky, Allen does bring his ace card, which is his continuing ability to get top-notch actors on-board Jesse Eisenberg is great as Bobby, toning down the sometimes annoying hyperactivity and bringing real heart to the role. He also shows that, as with Adventureland, he’s a good pairing for Kristen Stewart. In quite a few movies she’s come across as wooden and flat, but here her understated style has a surprising amount of nuance and empathy. Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Anna Camp, Ken Stott and Blake Lively also put in good performances, which helps ensures Café Society is more watchable than it might otherwise have been.
The film also looks great, with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro really revelling in bringing the glamourous, sun-drenched world of 1930s Hollywood to life. Indeed, there are moments when it feels like Woody is more interested in (once more) evoking that era than getting to the heart of his story. Indeed, Allen is still churning out a movie a year, but perhaps he needs to slow down. As with many of his recent efforts, there could have been something special about Café Society, and with more time honing the script it may have been able to bring that out. Instead it’s just a decent effort that’s come off the end of the Woody Allen conveyor belt.
Overall Verdict: Another to add to the list of Woody Allen movies that are perfectly fine and not too bad too watch, but which leave far less impression than the ingredients really ought to.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac