After years of making movies in and about Europe, Woody Allen’s latest film marks a firm return to his old stomping grounds of New York and Hollywood. The film is so slight, however, that one gets the impression he wrote the script on the plane ride back.
In Cafe Society Allen plays with a number of well-worn themes from the Woodman playbook, including the love triangle, May-December romance, and even a case or two of murder. That may sound like a lot of excitement, but this period drama is decidedly sleepy, studying its subjects with an almost academic level of interest to the point where Socrates is quoted.
The story takes us to the 1930s, where a young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg, a much better imitation of Allen than, say, Jason Biggs) packs his bags and moves from New York to L.A., where uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is a bigshot agent. Eventually landing a menial job at the agency, Bobby toils in Hollywood while wooing Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). But Vonnie is in love with someone else… and eventually Bobby moves back to New York and opens a nightclub with his brother (Corey Stoll), a notorious member of the “Jewish mob.”
I’m trying not to give too much away here because to do so would rob Cafe Society of whatever small level of charm it has. This is a tired story with virtually no surprises in store, and even the most patient of readers will likely find his mind wandering as he jumps ahead by several scenes, which are well-telegraphed by Allen’s straightforward script.
Extensively narrated by Allen (never a great idea), who doesn’t otherwise appear on film, the movie is talky and padded, with any number of scenes introducing characters in brief, all meant to dazzle us with the backdrop of the title: Cafe society. Cafe society, we’re told, is where you go to see and be seen… but precious little of the film takes place in the clubs of the ’30s. Instead, we spend endless sequences in the New York family home of the Dorfmans, visiting various relatives, and in Phil’s office. There’s even a lengthy sequence in Bobby’s long-term hotel room, apropos of nothing, where Bobby tries and fails to seal the deal with a hooker. Like much of the film, it is played for laughs, but the punchlines fall completely flat.
Everyone here is up for whatever — Allen has a way of bringing out the best in actors — and Eisenberg is appropriately neurotic in a role that has him in nearly every scene. Too bad the script gives him nowhere to go. Even the romantic moments tend to end with one character staring off into the distance, and the other asking them what they’re thinking about. Which may as well be what their next project will be.