Woody Allen's "Café Society" Peters Out By Halfway Mark

“Café Society” is 80-year-old Woody Allen’s forty-sixth feature film. Amazingly, numbers forty-one (“Midnight In Paris”) and forty-three (“Blue Jasmine”) were total gems – and Oscar winners! And last year’s “Irrational Man” was a sharp, misunderstood comedy-thriller. Nevertheless, “Café Society” shows the signs of a slowing creative mind that a reasonable person might have expected from Allen half a career ago. Every last of his 80 years is felt in the picture’s sleepy narration and leisurely pacing. He’s been here, done this, toiled over all of these same spare parts before. Only now they don’t build to anything significant, destined to appeal to only his most fervent fans. Or the over-80 set.

The 1930s-set picture is essentially the first bona fide “greatest hits” entry into Allen’s oeuvre, combining all of the writer-director’s favorite elements – a neurotic lead, orgasmic attention to period detail, jazz music, and love triangles – into a romantic comedy so wispy that it threatens to flicker off the screen entirely.

Stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart reteam for the third time (the first since last year’s miserable “American Ultra”) and their easy rapport is just that – easy. It’s an obvious chemistry that ends up a strike against the movie, making the would-be romance between their two characters too downy to create any real tension.

New York native and new Angeleno Bobby (Eisenberg) is settling into his new job working for his powerful Hollywood agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell). Then Bobby meets a girl. Vonnie (Stewart) is Phil’s secretary, half social butterfly, half eccentric, and she sets something off in Bobby that he can’t contain. He’s dumbstruck with love, naïve and unwilling to accept that the woman of his dreams is in a committed relationship with an unseen journalist named Doug. Vonnie insists that her beau is always traveling.

Vonnie and Doug break up, leaving Bobby to pick up the pieces of his love’s broken heart. She ultimately succumbs to Bobby’s charms – via musical montage, natch – and the two seem set for a perfect Tinseltown love affair, just like those of all the famous actors the screenplay keeps name-dropping. But this isn’t a Bogart film, it’s Woody Allen picture, and Doug is just as quickly back with Vonnie, permanently fracturing the bond between the leads.

The back half of the film comes with some smart observations about the nature of romantic relationships, but it’s delivered dryly, forgoing the marginal charm of what came before. Bobby moves back to New York, grows up and gets married to a woman named Veronica (Blake Lively), and in the process occasionally crosses paths with some familiar faces. What was once lightly entertaining becomes redundant in relation to Allen’s body of work and itself, leaning all too hard on Bobby’s family, most of whom are caricatures. (Corey Stoll’s turn as Bobby’s violent gangster of a brother-in-law is at first droll but becomes tired by the fourth time the same sight gag is repeated.)

The production design is frequently stunning and the movie’s high point. But this is Allen’s first movie to be shot digitally, resulting in beautiful lighting and ornate sets that look weirdly artificial. The effect is a film that looks like an impression of a Woody Allen film, with every last set and prop appearing stark and untextured.

“Café Society” isn’t notably worse than Allen’s last dud, “Magic In The Moonlight,” but it’s a letdown all the same. Carell’s casting was last minute (he replaced an unceremoniously dismissed Bruce Willis) and it shows. The comedian isn’t given anything particularly funny to say or do. And the leads are so deep into their respective comfort zones that they might as well be acting from plush chaise lounge chairs. Woody Allen’s lesser works are less marks against him, more harsh points of comparison by which he’ll always be judged.

It’s fine for an old man to write and direct like an old man. It’s just no fun to be reminded of it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 15, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Amazon Studios, Lionsgate
Director: Woody Allen
Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Blake Lively
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking)