There are few things in this world more dependable than Woody Allen. He will release exactly one movie every year. It will have a jazz soundtrack, a credit sequence of plain white text on a black background over jazz, and a staggeringly impressive cast. It will be about affluent types with predominantly (if not entirely) white major characters. It may be a period piece, or at least play with the trappings of one. It will open at art house cinemas in the summer. This is the sort of regularity watches can be set to. As it is currently the summer, the time has come for Allen’s latest, a look at high society New York and Hollywood in the 1930’s, Cafe Society.
Allen’s stand-in this time around is Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a Brooklyn Jew who moves to Los Angeles to break up the monotony of his life. Promised job prospects through his high profile Hollywood agent uncle Philip (Steve Carell), Bobby struggled to fit in on the left coast until he meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a secretary at Phil’s office tasked with showing him around the city. Bobby falls for her immediately, though his advances are consistently rebuffed, as she is otherwise attached. As he tries to settle into life in LA, his family seeks to have him return home where his gangster brother (Corey Stoll) wants him to work at his newly opened nightclub/front for his various illegal enterprises. Unimpressed by Hollywood’s cadre of vapid attention seekers, Bobby returns to the East Coast, using his newly bred left coast confidence to become a mainstay at the club, ushering it into a high society hot spot. Soon, a brand new Veronica (Blake Lively) whirlwinds her way into his nightclub and his life.
Cafe Society does not break new ground for Mr. Allen, but he has not been particularly interested in breaking ground for quite some time now. So it is no surprise that his latest protagonist is a neurotic Brooklyn Jew who loves jazz and has beautiful women throw themselves at him. It almost feels like parody at this point, but Allen has been making this movie with the slightest adjustments for so long, there is no reason to believe he would derivate from his decades-old formula. His dialogue, once so vibrant and alive, has aged rather poorly, resulting in this keenly unshakable feeling that the actors are always just actors playing roles instead of fully embodying the characters they have been cast to play. It can become maddening; Allen’s prose has smoothed out so extremely that all the characters sound alike, with the same speech patterns and vocabulary regardless of their background or relations. Of course, this can all be considered authorial voice, and Allen isn’t alone in the camp of having all of his characters talk with a particular cadence. In the end, it’s what is done with it that makes the difference.
In practice, it’s what is done with it that makes Cafe Society feel so slight. The casting is certainly on point; Eisenberg has been destined to be the lead in an Allen film since breaking out in The Squid and the Whale (and whetting his whistle with a supporting role in To Rome with Love), and Carell plays his fast-talking no nonsense agent to the stars with vigor. Both Stewart and Lively are captivating love interests, and while supporting roles from the likes of Corey Stoll and Parker Posey are barely there (Stoll’s gangster is an almost comically lazy caricature of a 1930’s mob man), both remain magnetic screen presences with so little to do. Truly, Cafe Society is let down far more by the perfunctory, by-the-numbers nature of its story than the work of its principals. Allen is perfectly content following these characters without providing a concrete reason to care about them. What’s left, then, is this amalgamation of humanity, people doing bad things to other people without really enduring any consequences for them (the one punishment a main character actually receives is treated with flippant disregard). It all dovetails into a profoundly blasé third act that resolves little and inspires even less. It leaves plot threads up in the air for no particular reason, content to bring on the credits when it hits that 90 minute mark. As the credits roll, it becomes clear that there is no real purpose to anything that has just been presented.
Sure, it is fun to watch the cast of Cafe Society act, the sunny cinematography is often gorgeous and the jazz soundtrack is enjoyable, but Woody Allen can only make so many star-studded sunsoaked jazzy movies until the star-studded sunsoaked jazziness is not enough to keep it afloat. There are inklings of classic Allen that threaten to breach the surface, but these are only fleeting moments that soon recede. Like Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man and To Rome with Love before it, Cafe Society feels like a quota film, a movie that exists more to keep his streak alive than to actually say something with conviction. And frankly, it’s getting more than a little tiring.