Every now and then a director, any director, needs to hit the reset button on their career. Start things from scratch, take a fresh creative angle. Everybody does it, even the best filmmakers can get into a rut. Somebody needs to inform Woody Allen of this, desperately. His movies are positively prehistoric at this point, languishing in stale philosophical and political diversions, cardboard characters, paper thin storylines burdened by anvil-weight narration, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. His latest, the intriguingly-titled Café Society, is undoubtedly gorgeous in both setting and casting, but it shows a basic filmmaking incompetence that would get any other director drummed out of the business.
Let's be honest here: if any other director had a string of movies as awful as Magic in the Moonlight, the utterly dire Irrational Man, and now Café Society, they wouldn't be working anymore. And that's ignoring the other lowly efforts in Allen's very-recent filmography, leaving room for modest successes like Moonlight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. It may be that Allen found the Café Society screenplay in the folds of an old couch, all wrinkled and crumpled up, and rushed to shoot it without stopping to ask why it was hidden away in the first place.
The core plot would make a decent first draft for anybody else, but for Allen it's EVERYTHING. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, the usual Bronx Jewish nebbish, the kind Allen would have played himself a couple of decades ago. Bobby has grown bored by New York so he hightails it to 1930s Hollywood where his uncle Phil (Steve Carell, and sadly not the Uncle Phil from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) is a hotshot studio big-wig. One of Allen's worst habits is exemplified by the Phil character. He name-drops a ton of classic film celebrities without any shred of context. It's like he looked up "Golden Era Movie Stars" on Wikipedia and just plopped them into the script. Allen tends to do this with political ideologies, as well, in an attempt to show how smart he thinks he is. There's a character here whose sole personality trait is that he quotes famous philosophers. He's unbearable, but also probably Allen's favorite character.
Bobby begins working for Phil as an assistant, which is where he meets the gorgeous Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who also works for his uncle. She and Bobby become quick friends, connecting through their mutual mocking of Hollywood and celebrity culture. Of course, they begin to have feelings for one another. Of course, she's got a boyfriend, a married one. Of course, it turns out to be the one person in the movie who could make things really awkward. If you've ever seen an Allen movie before you already know who Vonnie's guy is. If you've ever taken Creative Writing 101 you've likely written a more complicated, nuanced love triangle than is seen here.
The biggest problem with it is that Allen has no ability to give his characters depth, and that goes double for women. Vonnie isn't simply naive, she's positively wooden. Allen has this belief that all women will bite on any cheeseball borderline skeezy line that leaves a guy's mouth. Literally moments after she's been dumped by Phil, Vonnie is swooning over Bobby's ham-fisted proclamations that they'll run off together to New York and get married. Presumptuous much? Not in Allen's world; Bobby's not-so-subtle demands are considered charming. The other major female character in the film arrives more than halfway through, Bobby's future wife played by Blake Lively. It's not worth knowing her name because she's really only there to give birth to his kid, then she's basically shuffled off into the freezer or something.
All of this is complicated by Allen's wandering creative eye as he spends inordinate amounts of time on subplots that don't enhance the narrative one iota. The shame is that one, which involves Bobby's gangster older brother played by Corey Stoll, is perhaps the best thing the movie has going for it. It's mostly old-style mafia stuff of variety, done in a silly over-the-top way that doesn't fit with the rest of the movie at all. And maybe that's why it works so well, because for a few moments we can forget everything else going on and be reminded how fun Bullets Over Broadway was. Allen also wastes our time fleshing out the histories of characters who are literally just passing through the glamorous social clubs and elite parties that make-up the film's setting. Admittedly, the cinematography is gorgeous and the score a wonderful shade of jazzy, but there's no substance to any of it. Allen isn't exploring that culture so much as flying over it on the way to his next movie, which will be arriving around this time next year, like clockwork, whether we want it or not.
Rating: 1 out of 5