“Café Society”: Stunning visuals, lackluster plot

By Katie Okumu
Berea, KY

In the twilight of Woody Allen’s career, he has created a substantial array of movies that have struggled to match the originality and depth of his earlier works.

In “Café Society,” his most recent endeavor at storytelling, Allen tells a familiar narrative through another awkwardly bumbling lead actor in a different period (1930s America).

Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, a down on his luck, Jewish, New York-native who moves to Hollywood in order to work for his celebrity agent Uncle Phil (Steve Carell). 

Bobby’s neuroticism is established early on in the film when he hires a prostitute. Bobby becomes incensed at her lateness and says his libido is ruined. He offers to pay her without having sex, which causes her to cry and question his attraction for her. What follows is a scene that showcases Eisenberg’s acting strength. He fully embraces the Allen-esque formula of “neurosis + sensitivity = charm.”

Steve Carell slips into the world of Woody Allen less smoothly. His vocal presence is jarring in comparison to the smooth, trained voices so characteristic of the 1930s movie industry (this vocal pattern was seen with some continuity in supporting characters).

When Bobby first goes to work for his Uncle Phil, he meets potential love-interest Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Stewart is slightly unconvincing in her role as a ‘30s secretary. Her slow, languid tone is inconsistent with her character’s explanation of her former passion for the movie industry and her disgruntlement with the shallowness of Hollywood life. She also seems to struggle to match the chemistry and interest of Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Bobby.

In the first scene where Bobby and Vonnie visit a local Mexican joint, Eisenberg is so convincing in his flirtation with Stewart that he manages to charm the audience as well. Their mismatched attraction for one another made the scene feel awkward, yet still believable. This is not the first time Eisenberg and Stewart have worked together on a film, most recently starring in “American Ultra” (2015). Their romantic relationship in the latter film was convincing. The viewer is left wondering how their powerful chemistry declined.

The most enjoyable parts of the narrative center on the other members of Bobby’s family. Bobby’s parents (Ken Scott and Jeannie Berlin) are lively in their comedic timing, and help to carry the more emotional moments of the movie.

Corey Stoll’s role as Bobby’s brother Ben is a welcome surprise in the predictable churn of the story. He is both assured and humorously convincing in his role as a gangster turned nightclub owner.

Three-time Academy Award winner Vittorio Storaro is the mastermind behind the movie’s stunning visuals. The cinematography plays with colors, particularly red and blue, to highlight the experiences of different characters. The color tones are seeped in honey and rich golden light.

The costume design in the film, done by Suzy Benzinger, was equally mouthwatering. Benzinger, who worked with Allen on both “Irrational Man” and “Blue Jasmine,” continues to excel at telling a story with clothing. For example, Benzinger used stunning diamonds to turn Blake Lively into the awe-inspiring Victoria, Bobby’s later romantic interest.

In the end, “Café Society” is not Woody Allen’s best. It’s not his worst, either. Watching the movie made me wish at times that I was at home watching “Annie Hall” in my pajamas. Still, the few compelling moments of the film made me remember why I love Woody Allen’s work, and will always pay to see his next movie in theaters: I hope the next will be better.

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