Cafe Society (2016)
Despite a few surprises, ‘Cafe Society’ is more of a bland snack than a satisfying meal
Cafe Society flirts with many of Woody Allen's expected flavors. It begins (and ends) with a narrator who sets the scene and intrudes periodically to interpret and expand on what is essentially an artsy short story set to film. Allen concocts a familiar-looking stew of unrequited love, marital infidelity, betrayal and disillusionment. Because it is Woody Allen, it is just flirtation, as the expected cliches — whether big plot points or snatches of dialog — never land quite exactly where expected.
The basic storyline doesn't sound like anything that would grab you: Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a nebbishy young New Yorker, leaves his home in Depression-era New York to become an errand boy for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a well connected talent agent in Hollywood. Bobby falls for Phil's secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart), whose down-to-earth attitude is so out of place among the superficiality of the movie business. Veronica, though, already has a journalist boyfriend, which doesn't much deter Bobby from spending the first half of the movie pursuing her.
Let's face it. If you're still a Woody Allen fan after his run of often so-so confections in the past decade, you're going to partake of Cafe Society, and you won't be disappointed. Eisenberg, Carell and Stewart are a joy to watch as they deliver Allen's snappy, mirth-inducing dialog. But this is not the best entree for Allen novices. Try the more substantial Bullets Over Broadway instead.
Allen dangles his favorite cliches in front of you and is clever enough to snatch them away and end a scene on a slightly unexpected note. For example, you keep expecting Uncle Phil to be exposed as a complete fraud professionally and personally, but in fact he turns out to be only mildly off-putting, due in large part to Carell's aptly modulated performance.
Even so, clever dialog and fine performances don't quite save Cafe Society. It is only mildly satisfying to watch Bobby's enevitable romantic disappointment, his escape back to New York, and his ascent to the top of the so-called "cafe society." This really is bland, artsy short story fare, and it leaves you feeling hungry for something just a bit spicier.