There have been so many Woody Allen films that they’re beginning to blend into each other. I can’t tell a Match Point from a Scoop from a Magic In The Moonlight without desperately trying to match actors to their faces and remember plot lines. There used to be a time when every new Allen film stood tall above the one before — Manhattan wasn’t Sleeper, The Purple Rose Of Cairo wasn’t Annie Hall — but now they seem to be struggling for their share of the sun. His latest, Café Society, will unfortunately never breach the canopy.
Its first problem is casting. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, an inexperienced Jew trying to find his way in the world. Eisenberg, with his staccato verbal timing and timid posture, is perfect for this kind of dorky, wide-eyed wanderer. But as the film moves along, Bobby inherits his brother’s hip nightclub in Manhattan and is suddenly transformed into the Elvis Presley of maître d’s. He marries a stunning socialite, knows everyone worth knowing, and is always glad they came. He is where everybody knows his name.
This Bobby, the famous Bobby, requires notes Eisenberg cannot reach, not because Eisenberg a poor actor, but because he is pitched at a completely different frequency (think Seth Rogen playing James Bond). Allen’s mistake here is to play him against type. How much more believable it would’ve been if Bobby the dork had stumbled cluelessly into the maw of café society.
Then there’s the plot, which has a neat premise and is set against a gorgeous 1930s backdrop. It establishes three leading characters: Bobby; his movie producer uncle, Phil (Steve Carell); and Phil’s conservative but sexy secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart). Bobby wants to make it in Hollywood. Phil has already made it. Veronica has accepted the conditions of her lifestyle and is content to coast (it’s always the men making plans in these sorts of movies). These are fascinating Woody Allen characters, ripe for exploration, but what does he do? Limit them all to the boilerplate shackles of a humdrum love triangle that inevitably leads to regret, secret getaways and forbidden love. So careful is Allen with this idea that he never steps a toe out of line. Each character behaves precisely as expected, recites Allen’s unmistakable dialogue on cue, and is restricted from doing a thing more. I think you’ve made the wrong romantic choice if you still dream of the lover you once spurned, but the characters in Café Society don’t seem equipped to come to this realisation. They find sorrow more rewarding. C’est la vie, I guess.
Allen’s movies are coin flips now. Some work, some don’t. The ones that do are usually very good. Yes, I’m looking at you, Midnight In Paris. Wasn’t such a fan of Blue Jasmine. All the ones in between I can hardly remember, let alone name. It takes skill to play to the lowest common denominator. Adam Sandler is a master of this. But Allen is of a different league. He doesn’t do the scavenging so well. He is of a breed of invaluable comic writers, and while Café Society is no train wreck, I fear the tracks are ending, and the passengers at the last station are growing restless.