With Woody Allen, you never really know what quality of movie you’re going to get until the dust is settled and you’re leaving the theater. Especially in recent years, Allen’s output has waivered between exceptional and mediocre, with “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine” as the standouts of the last five years. But, those are only two of six films he’s made in the same time period. There’s bound to be some garbage.
“Café Society” is not garbage. Its premise is vague, but simple —Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) sets out to Hollywood to find work with his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a super agent of sorts. Once there, Bobby meets and falls for Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). In typical Allen fashion, complications arise to test the individuals and their budding relationship, but unlike Allen’s past work, the relationships in “Café Society” feel less authentic.
The film is set in the golden age of Hollywood and seems to harken back to the movies of those days with its artistic decisions. So when Bobby is overly eager to declare his love for Vonnie, it feels more like an homage to the melodramas of that time period than poor writing. Likewise, otherwise clunky editing styles like the slow wipe or a flip technique straight out of PowerPoint fit right in.
It’s easy to forgive things like this when the movie sweeps you up into the glitz and glamor of the era. For all of its weaknesses, “Café Society” is a mesmerizing period piece. It succeeds in harnessing the audience’s nostalgia for that bygone time to gloss over its glaring issues.
There are plenty. For one, the narrative is sloppy and all over the place. Various threads flail around until they finally make a loose connection, and the pacing is uneven throughout. Bobby’s brother Ben (Corey Stoll) portrayed as a gangster is an excessive way of justifying his role in the narrative and in the end doesn’t add much to the movie except 15 extra minutes. The story is interesting, but where it could have gone is far from where it actually goes.
For what it’s worth, the performances are decent across the board. Stewart is by far the best, playing Vonnie with nuance and grace. Her character sometimes feels too modern for the time, but that’s more the writing’s fault than anything else. Carell also continues to impress in his dramatic roles, but the other leading man, Eisenberg, is all over the place. He can’t seem to decide between imitating Allen in “Annie Hall” or employing his usual awkward so-and-so shtick. It doesn’t help that Bobby isn’t a very inspiring character. He’s more of a creep than a charmer.
Ultimately, “Café Society” comes across as not reaching its full potential. Funnier than most of his recent films but less affecting, it seems like Allen is running out of things to say. The film is saved by its aesthetics, which works to kill 90 minutes, but fails to leave a lasting impact on its audience. It may not be among Allen’s top-tier movies, but “Café Society” is worth watching if only to adore the eye candy.