Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 7, 2016)
Now in his 80s, Woody Allen continues to crank out a new movie every year. For his 2016 release, we find Café Society.
Set in Hollywood circa the 1930s, young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) decides to leave New York and move to California. There he takes on a job with his uncle, talent agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell).
This leads Bobby to meet Veronica "Vonnie" Sybil (Kristen Stewart), Phil’s secretary. Bobby immediately finds himself smitten with Vonnie, but she rebuffs his advances. Vonnie claims to have a boyfriend named “Doug” – but it turns out instead that she maintains an affair with her married boss Phil. The film follows these interlocking relationships.
As love triangle tales go, Society offers an awfully dull experience. While the interactions among the characters should boast drama and intrigue, nothing eventful or interesting ever emerges.
Instead, we find ourselves stuck with a dull, monotonous narrative. Bobby exists as nothing more than yet another “surrogate Woody”, a factor that leaves him as a one-dimensional personality. Allen doesn’t seem able to write for his doppelgangers in a satisfying manner any longer, so we’re left with a character who feels like a bland photocopy.
It doesn’t help that Eisenberg fails to bring anything more than banal impersonation to the table. On paper, Eisenberg seems like a good candidate to play a faux Woody, as he naturally gravitates toward Allen’s style of awkwardness and stammering.
To be sure, Eisenberg doesn’t flop in the part – he certainly beats some of the lousier surrogate Woodys from the past – but he lacks qualities beyond simple imitation. He gives us a performance without real substance.
Carell probably fares best of the bunch, but he gets little with which to work, and the same goes for the rest of the cast. Society gives us a slew of indistinct characters who never seem endearing, interesting and intriguing.
The film’s story goes nowhere. Allen seems to lack the patience to follow various paths, so Society flits around without much coherence. It seems to choose its direction almost randomly and doesn’t come together in any way.
Allen shows no confidence in the movie’s basic romantic narrative. Society devotes a lot of time to a subplot about Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), and these moments make no real sense. The film could lose the Ben scenes entirely and no one would ever miss them.
Deep down, though, the film’s biggest problem comes from its basic dullness. With lackluster characters and a meandering story, Café Society ends up as bland, boring Woody Allen material.