Woody Allen's "Café Society" fails to impress

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 10/4/16 12:00am

When it comes to some filmmakers, I find that while I am able to fully admire their craft and ingenuity, I can never seem to “get on their wavelengths.” Woody Allen is one such filmmaker. Allen can be hilarious, clever and insightful with his writing and directing, but I’ve never been able to genuinely love even his very best work, such as “Annie Hall.” That being said, I typically find his work to be highly enjoyable and even ingenious, which is why I am struggling so much with “Café Society.” It is well-directed, well-acted, well-filmed and overall well-made, but I generally expect something a little more innovative and original from Woody Allen. So should I praise it for its competency or lambast it for its lack of creativity?

At the heart of “Café Society”’s rambling narrative lies Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a Jewish boy from New York City during the 1930s who moves to Hollywood in hopes of getting a job with his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a famous talent agent. At his uncle’s office, Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and the two begin a tenuous romance despite her initial confession that she is already seeing someone. It turns out that “someone” is Uncle Phil, and what follows is the story of a love triangle with Vonnie at the apex. As one might expect from Allen, the story is not actually as simple as I just made it sound; the film contains numerous subplots which seem to connect back to the actual story — if you’re a particularly forgiving audience member. Allen also narrates the story, which I initially thought might be used in a meta manner similar to in “Annie Hall.” No such luck. Occasionally the narration is humorous, but most of the time it feels like background noise that was gifted a microphone.

For the most part, the actors are all talented, and they play their parts well. Eisenberg, in particular, is the heart and soul of the film. If “The Social Network” proved anything, it was that Eisenberg is a talented actor. Sadly, he’s been typecast in more or less the same role since then: geeky, awkward and fast-talking. He is all of those things in “Café Society” but with an added layer of nuance. Eisenberg reveals a depth I hadn’t yet seen in him as he demonstrates Bobby’s simultaneous naiveté and heartache. Carell’s performance is fascinating because his character starts out as a caricature and yet he is never played for laughs. It took me a while to realize that this was going to be one of Carell’s “serious” performances, but once I did, I appreciated the complexity he brought to the character. Carell has the unique ability to make sensitivity and abrasiveness not seem like polar opposite character traits but instead manifestations of a fully-rounded personality.

The supporting cast is universally good, with the exception of Stewart who is, in my opinion, the film’s biggest misfire. Stewart is a good actress, and she plays her part well, but that’s sort of the problem: She’s merely good. When Bobby and Phil talk about her you would think they were referring to someone like Holly Golightly from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” But try as she might, Stewart is just no Audrey Hepburn. She’s talented, to be sure, but she didn’t convince me that Vonnie was all that special, and the whole crux of the movie relies on our conviction that Vonnie is truly the most angelic being that either Bobby or Phil has ever encountered.

“Café Society” was exceedingly funny while I was watching it, but now that I’m writing this a few days later, I can’t remember a single joke or funny scene. Likewise, the plot seemed clever at the time, but now I can barely recall it beyond the basic premise. The film divides itself into two halves in a similar fashion to “La La Land.” At first I was curious to see what Allen would do with the second half of the movie, but as the film progressed I felt that the later half really wasn’t necessary.

When it comes to cinema, I think there is an important distinction between passive films and active films. Active films are those films which work to actively engage the audiences’ brains either because they are so creative (something like “Star Wars”) or because they present a set of meaningful and complex ideas (the entirety of Stanley Kubrick’s filmography). Passive films are those films which ask you to sit back and relax while a series of moving images are projected onto a screen without any need for you to engage with the film after it is finished (every film Michael Bay has ever made). “Café Society” is fun while you watch it yet totally forgettable once you exit the theater. It’s well-crafted with nowhere exciting to go. Simply put, it is a prime example of a passive film. But I guess as far as passive films go, “Café Society” isn’t half bad.

Rating: 6/10