In the close to three years I’ve been writing reviews, I’ve repeatedly broken my vow of reviewing every movie I have paid to watch, due to my raging indifference towards late period Woody Allen. I had every intention to review Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man upon viewing – the latter even makes the former more substantial, with its biting critique of questionable age gap relationships that were romanticised to queasy levels in the slight 2014 romantic comedy (which I still confess to enjoying more than most).
There are always great one liners, great performances and gorgeous cinematography that makes love to your retinas in a Woody Allen movie. But they infrequently add up to something that lingers in the imagination; for every Midnight in Paris, there’s a To Rome With Love. Allen directs films at such a workmanlike rate, with one a year always in the pipeline, that it could be easy to assume he cares less about the final product rather than ensuring it is produced and ready for release like clockwork every year.
Cafe Society has been hailed in many quarters as one of Allen’s best late period works, yet it has even less substance than the two age-gap romances that preceded it. Allen has never shied away from professing his love of Old Hollywood; The Purple Rose of Cairo rivals Annie Hall for the title of his definitive masterpiece, so a detour to Hollywood in the glorious age of the 30’s should be an escapist delight in the same vein. Instead, the final result is one of the least developed films in his entire back catalogue. We spend the majority of the running time going through the motions with a tiresomely predictable love triangle story (that, as always, revisits his beloved interest in the age-gap romance), ignoring the gangster drama that burns away in the background.
After quitting work at his father’s New York business, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) heads to L.A in the hopes of working with his uncle Phil, a major player in 1930’s Hollywood. Knowing nobody in the celebrity obsessed town, he is left to make connections at vacuous parties, whilst forming a blossoming relationship with his uncle’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). As this is a Woody Allen movie, this isn’t a plain sailing romance, and of course, there’s a healthy splattering of neurosis throughout.
The movie runs out of steam fast when it is revealed that the criminal underworld saga that is infrequently represented has no real pay off. If Allen wanted to make another of his romantic melodramas, that would be fine, if somewhat underwhelming. But the fact there are plenty of nods to a more interesting narrative running in tandem with the main story makes Cafe Society an infuriating watch. The end result is boring, predictable and so formulaic it could have been produced by an automated Woody Allen screenplay generator – the hints at Scorsese style gangster fun throughout, which never tie into the main story in a meaningful manner, become increasingly exasperating. The gangster sections aren’t particularly innovative either, but it couldn’t be described as characteristic of an Allen movie.
Which isn’t to say Cafe Society is without charms – it may be dull and narratively confused, but as always, you can rely on the strength of the performances, a smattering of winning one liners and some jaw dropping cinematography to help you through to the bitter end. In the lead role, Jesse Eisenberg manages to be one of the best screen surrogates for Allen’s persona, channelling every one of his awkward mannerisms and smarmy neurosis down to a tee. Eisenberg has often been criticised for playing the same character in every movie. Here, the variations on his usual screen persona are subtle and display a greater depth in his acting abilities than you may have otherwise assumed.
Elsewhere, Kristen Stewart continues her post-Twilight ascent into being one of the best screen presences in independent cinema. This isn’t an electric performance like her powerhouse turn in Clouds of Sils Maria, but she manages to make a fairly underwritten, quasi-Manic Pixie Dream Girl role feel human and empathetic. The fact she was only recently considered to be a terrible performer seems laughable now. Rounding out the main cast is Steve Carell, who equally channels his comedic abilities with a smattering of sardonic one liners, as well as the ability to play psychodrama really well. An unnerving sequence late in the film’s third act where he stares at Eisenberg across a dinner table has hints of the same unhinged menace he brought to Foxcatcher. It’s a moment that I imagine will live longer in my mind than anything else in this movie, which is already fading into irrelevance as I type.
Woody Allen is a great filmmaker and there really is no fault with him sticking to subjects he’s familiar with. But in Cafe Society, his refusal to do anything new with his thematic obsessions grows boring really quickly – and no solid one liner every 10 minutes, or powerhouse lead performance can stop the end result feeling tedious. There are hints of a better film here, but the finished product is nothing more than a dull mess.