A neurotic New York Jew moves to California to work for his movie mogul uncle in the booming 1930s L.A. film business in Café Society, the latest comedy-drama from filmmaker Woody Allen.
But young Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) runs into trouble when he falls for secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) – who just happens to be the secret lover of Uncle Phil (Steve Carrell).
There’s the usual comic tension in this love triangle, which turns a little more serious and thoughtful halfway through when the story switches gears and relocates to New York.
Here’s the core problem with Café Society: we don’t care a lick about the immature Bobby, with Eisenberg’s abrasive performance adding an asocial bent to Allen’s traditional neurotic lead, or the poorly-developed Vonnie, or Uncle Phil, who’s wrestling with the decision of whether to trade his loving wife in for the younger model.
Carrell, at least, is fun to watch as the distraught mogul. But the scenes between Eisenberg and Stewart, which take up the bulk of the first half of the movie, are almost completely devoid of chemistry or interest.
By the end of the film, part of the message seems to be that these are soulless and vapid people who make the wrong decisions and have to live with them. Fair enough. But that doesn’t make the experience of watching the movie any more enjoyable.
But not content to let his core couple weigh the proceedings down, Allen injects the movie with a myriad of wonderful supporting characters and secondary plotlines; strangely enough, whenever the focus is off the main story and characters, Café Society soars.
Chief among the supporting cast are Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as Bobby’s Brooklyn parents, who feel like they might have been lifted out of an episode of Seinfeld. They’re used almost exclusively for comic relief, but add a great deal of energy to the film and generate its biggest laughs.
Also good is Corey Stoll as Bobby’s older brother, who employs him to some success in a New York nightclub while also dabbling in some less-than-legit dealings on the side.
And then there’s Blake Lively as Veronica, another potential love interest for Eisenberg’s Bobby. Bright and radiant, her character becomes the only one in the film we really care about, if only because we know about the guy she’s getting involved with.
Café Society is more polished and expensive-looking than the typical Woody Allen picture, with some wonderful 1930s sets and costumes (though the New York scenes are generally more convincing that some of the earlier ones in L.A.)
It’s also a good deal better than the filmmaker’s previous two, Irrational Man and Magic in the Moonlight. While Café Society lacks a strong story or compelling leads in the Eisenberg and Stewart characters, it’s an interesting and unconventional movie with other merits to offer.