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Jesse Eisenberg (Now You See Me) is the current stand in for Woody Allen in this romantic comedy set in the 1930s. The challenge is to see him as a romantic lead.
Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is leaving his life in the Bronx for the sunny shores of California and the possibility of working in the movie industry. Thankfully his uncle Phil is in the business and Bobby is hoping that he might give him a leg up in the world of starlets and action heroes. In Hollywood during the 1930s, there is no-one as connected than as super agent, Phil Stern (Steve Carell). As a favour to his sister, Phil gives his nephew a job as an errand boy, not the leg up that Bobby was hoping for, but it is a start. While he works through the network of writers, actors and directors, Bobby becomes infatuated with his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Eventually, their relationship grows from friends to lovers with the consideration of one day marrying. Then an interesting wrinkle in both of their pasts leads to a comical and heart-breaking tale of love gone wrong.
Eisenberg is the latest incarnation of Woody Allen on screen. The seasoned director writes himself into many of his own films, but has had to enlist someone else to play a younger version of his neurotic persona. This directorial technique has had mixed results through the later portion of Allen’s career. Even though Eisenberg does represent the right level of neurosis to portray Allen, he does not have the charisma or comedic timing of the legendary writer/director. Beyond the weakness of the lead in Cafe Society, Allen does benefit from an amazing thespian talent pool, which should deliver hope that the the surrounding cast could save this film. The few shining moments in this production based in the Golden Age of cinema come in the supporting cast. One example would be Parker Posey & Paul Schneider as the socialite and lawyer couple, Rad and Steve Taylor, who win over audiences during their brief moments on screen. They manage to convey the chemistry of a married couple of that era with an authentic flare that is reminiscent of previous Allen productions.
These plus a few other examples are where the hope ends for this film where each scene ends with little to no satisfaction. The whole experience becomes a lifeless exploit into an uninteresting cast of characters who seem to be walking through the motions. Eisenberg dose not shoulder all of the blame for this mediocre look into the past, the blame can be shared across the production. Some of the issues could be found in the lack of chemistry between Stewart and Eisenberg, the creepy consideration of a relationship between Carrell and Stewart or the preposterous notion that Eisenberg would walk out on his wife, Blake Lively (The Shallows). Some of the other challenges can be found in the delivery of the script. Allen seems to be trying for a 1930s feel to the acting and directorial style, but unfortunately this does not play out well. The overall feeling is that the cast has had little time to work with the script prior to filming.
Throughout each act, there is an anticipation for something great to rise out of the less than inspiring script, but it never quite gets there. The cast, director and story line offer a strong proposition for Cafe Society to be something more, but in the end it serves up like a lukewarm cup of coffee in a tired cafe in the Bronx.