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Find Woody Allen Not Working Too Hard With ‘Café Society’ (Movie Review)

cafe society poster 2As far as the visual design goes for a Woody Allen film, Café Society is among his best. Going over budget for the sake of this 1930s-set farce, Allen manages to put a well-cast ensemble in a number of great costumes, as they interact within well-designed sets and beautiful locations to evoke a level of nostalgia captured quite often in Allen films. It’s just a shame the story doesn’t take the audience anywhere new when it comes to Allen’s level of wit. It’s almost as if he were happier lounging in the café, rather than actually reading the menu.

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47 films in and Allen’s 50+ year career as a writer/director could certainly mean the filmmaker only has so much more to offer. Of course, that would mean leaving out some of his recent and best efforts, including Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine and Vicky Christina Barcelona. That’s the problem with filmmakers entitled to complete creative control and no real care for doing many interviews, you don’t quite get to know what makes them tick.

Café Society explores the Golden Age of Hollywood through the eyes of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who has just arrived from New York and wants to make something of himself. He is hoping to get help from his blowhard uncle, a movie studio exec played by Steve Carell, but priorities shift when Bobby finds himself falling in love with his uncle’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).  The nature of these romantic intentions have their ups and downs, leading to Bobby eventually moving back to New York, where he starts work as a promoter in a popular nightclub owned by his mobster brother (Corey Stoll). Don’t you know it, despite another love interest played by Blake Lively, Vonnie eventually comes back into Bobby’s life.

It’s not as if every Allen film needs to break new ground, but being such a prolific filmmaker allows you to get a good sense of when Allen is coasting. Café Society is easily a better film than the last couple Allen efforts (Irrational Man and Magic in the Moonlight), but it still has little to offer that feels all that inspired.  There are notable filmmaking aesthetic choices (this is Allen’s first film shot digitally) and the cast plays well together (fun fact: Bruce Willis was fired and recast during production), but it’s not as if these factors and the script’s witticisms make up for a fairly straightforward story.

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If anything, the film plays like a hodgepodge of everything you have seen in other Allen films and an indication of the various places the story could have gone if it decided to invest itself in one of these previously explored ideas. We have the unrequited love, the mild Hollywood satire, an angle involving mobsters and some monologues and conversations concerning life’s meaning and the inevitable understanding of death.

Given that the film plays as a comedy, it would at least be great if the film made strides to really nail its humor, but even in that regard Café Society strains to produce really solid laughs from the more overt moments. It’s when the film calms down and lets actors play with Allen’s dialogue and the appropriate rhythms that the film finds its best footing.

This leads me to Eisenberg and Stewart, who make a great pairing (as previously evidenced in the underseen gem Adventureland). Both are narrow in range, but great with the write material and Allen has found a way to channel that well. It doesn’t hurt to see how well the costume design suits them here, as the film at least manages to get away with throwing a lot of money on the screen and making that work. But yes, there are true characters here that are great at both speaking and listening to each other, which ultimately makes the film more effective that it could be otherwise.

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Other actors are strong as well. The mobster stuff is pretty thin, but Stoll makes the most of it. Carell pushes up against being a cliché and comes out successfully. The best stuff, aside from the young leads, is the work from Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as Bobby’s bickering parents. Oh and Parker Posey is always good for a laugh. That’s really what this movie is – it’s just good for a laugh, but not much more.

Café Society is one of Allen’s more lavish productions, but he misses out on filling the screen with more to chew on. It’s not without its merits, as the cast is quite good and have I mentioned the art design! But I look forward to seeing another one of those Allen winners that will be much easier to champion. Until then, I’ll just have to calmly swallow this brunch being given at the café.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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