With 52 films to his name spanning 50 years and close to 200 awards nominations, Woody Allen (An Irrational Man) is possibly the most consistently prolific filmmaker out there. He has been a part of my entire movie-going life. The results, admittedly, are uneven, but his craft is solid.
Cafe Society, itself, is not his best but it has its qualities. My favorites are still Midnight in Paris followed by Hannah and Her Sisters, though I do have a soft spot for some of his earlier comedies too. This latest film recaptures the 1930s on both coasts, celebrating and skewering their lifestyles. It is a bit romance and a bit vaudeville, full of costume, snappy dialogue, and one-liners. But though the whirlwind of the story is interesting, it never really comes together or feels quite real.
Jesse Eisenberg (Now You See Me 2) is the young lead being buffeted and remade by the world around him. His journey and evolution are credible. The problem is his opposite in Kristen Stewart (Equals), who really needs stronger direction than Allen provides on set. Her performance is often sweet but rather hollow, especially by the end. Without the solidity of this relationship, the rest of the story unravels. Steve Carell (Freeheld) doesn’t help either, but his issue is less one of acting and more about casting; Carell just isn’t charismatic enough to make me believe him in the role of uber-agent.
As with all Allen films, there is a rather large and good ensemble. Of note in this particular outing were Cory Stoll (Black Mass), Parker Posey (An Irrational Man), Sari Lennick (A Serious Man), and Blake Lively (The Town). Stoll was actually unrecognizable for me, and he usually sticks out from the cast (in a bad way). Posey was just wonderfully entertaining and made for her role, as was Lennick hers. Lively has the smallest role of the bunch, but fills it with subtle layers.
While the story is engaging, if ultimately unfulfilled, the style of the film is fun. Allen’s script and direction, from the beginning of the front-rolled credits, recapture an era of film-making that has been mythologized as much by time as it was by the original orchestrators of the all the fake and wonderful tales that form the bedrock of Hollywood history. It is Allen’s willingness to slam everyone that allows the humor to work… no one is safe and no one is perfect.
The great thing about Allen’s opus is that if the most recent film doesn’t work for you, not to worry, there is another one already in the works to try and grab you again. And even this far into his career, he continues to experiment and try new things. Cafe Society is probably in the top half of his films in quality, but far from the top few. But there is enough to keep fans engaged, and maybe even capture a few casual visitors to Allen’s worlds.