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Movie Review: #CafeSociety

Woody Allen's newest isn't exactly...new. Or worth your time.

Review by Matt Cummings

In the era of modern film - one where gritty violence, sexual dominance, and larger-than-life comic book heroes dominate the theaters, Filmmaker Woody Allen is certainly cut from a cloth that seems to be fading. His most recent affair - the dramedy Café Society - also seems tattered at the edges, an uninspiring story of adulthood and the choices one must live with even when those choices make no sense to the audience for which they're intended.

Set among the palm trees and stars of 1930's Hollywood, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) has come from his Jewish home in New York, hoping to find glamour and purpose away from his father's watch business. However, his powerful casting mogul uncle Phil (Steve Carrell) won't give him the time of day, as he's too busy hob-knobbing with stars like Barbara Stanwyck, James and Betty Davis. Eventually Phil relents, giving Bobby a gopher job until he meets his uncle’s secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart), whom Bobby becomes instantly smitting with. Vonnie, it turns out, is having an affair with the same Phil, who's been happily married for 25 years. But Bobby has no chance with Vonnie, and soon she's with Phil with Bobby returning home to run his brother's night club. As success comes to Bobby and the New year approaches, Vonnie re-emerges into his life, forcing both to reflect on their time together and to consider the unthinkable: a rekindling of their relationship, even though Bobby is now also married and with child.

Café Society is about as bland a film as you're going to get. It's really superficial, which was perhaps Allen's intent, but we don't feel inspired by any of the upper echelon prattling on in a 1930's version of 1st World problems. Moreover, his casting is for the most part a giant swing and miss: Eisenberg, doing his best Woody Allen impersonation, never really connects as anyone other than a giant puppy dog for Stewart's advances. Bobby's Modus Operandi is really to suffer for the LA woman he meets; he and Vonnie #1 never really connect in a way that we either end up rooting for them or feeling sorry for either when their fates are reconciled. Stewart refains from the the trademark eye flutter - but she never seems the right fit for either Bobby or Phil. It really feels that the trio should just find new partners and leave the pining to the movie actors Phil knows so well. The same goes for Vonnie #2, a beautiful but horribly underused Blake Lively as Bobby's wife. In my opinion, Bobby traded up, and yet he's smitten for #1 even as the credits roll.

But more than the only decent acting and script by Allen, it's the feeling that Café Society (and its director) seem horribly dated. It's become more important for him to maintain his once-a-year film output - a promise he's kept since 1982 - than to make a truly meaningful one. That was 2014's Magic in the Moonlight, but there had been a streak of previous losers so long that some had written Allen off entirely when Moonlight arrived. And even though Blue Jasmine brought Cate Blanchett an Oscar, everyone wrote that off to her acumen more than Allen's direction. Much like his characters in Café Society, Allen seems to be coasting on reputation here, suffering from a cast that fails to prop up his diminishing status. We've seen the very good from Carrell (The Big Short) and the awful (Freeheld) and here Phil is neither unlikable or even interesting enough for us to care. His chemistry with Stewart feels more like teacher/student (especially in age) than passionate lovers. In fact, everyone in Café Society seems incredibly bored, even though DP Vittorio Storaro does his best to bathe the screen in pretty browns and well-choreographed dance scenes. But it's not nearly enough.

It's likely that Café Society will make its money, earning Woody Allen yet another opportunity to keep his streak alive, but most likely deny him the credit he thinks he deserves. Hampered by a dull script and an acting troupe clearly not the equal to his previous films, Café Society does very little to hold the general audience's interest. Critics have already buttered up their misplaced affections for this one, so steer clear of it unless you're ready to buy into the hype. It's not what modern film has become, but it's certainly not what we deserve either.

Café Society is rated PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking and has a runtime of 96 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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