Truthfully, Woody Allen's muse was always just Woody Allen himself: awkward, loquacious, neurotic, hopelessly romantic, white, male, and Jewish. So of course that makes Jesse Eisenberg a perfect stand-in. The actor has rejoined the Allen universe four years after To Rome With Love for his latest role as an aspiring Hollywood hobnob hidden in a sea of established socialites in the 1930s-set CAFÉ SOCIETY.
And, in true Allen form, he's bumbling around and has no idea how to navigate this world--but still manages to have all kinds of opinions about it. Bobby (Eisenberg) comes from what I can only presume is Allen's version of a "typical" Jewish family: loud, rambunctious, deeply religious, and extremely protective of one another. Oh, and he's got a gangster in the family (played by Corey Stoll). Really, this could have been the entirety of the film because every time Allen switched back to the family's Bronx shenanigans from the central plot in Los Angeles, you almost forget what movie you're watching. Then the two merge when Bobby abandons Tinseltown to open his own high society when he opens a lounge club in his native New York.
The truth is, neither storyline is particularly compelling to watch. The awkward young Jewish man desperate to be accepted by a bunch of people who ultimately don't matter to him has been done before--and by Allen himself. Yet that is a dominant theme here, and no matter how lovely the acting is (Eisenberg and Stoll are joined by the always awesome Parker Posey, Sari Lennick, Steve Carrell, and Blake Lively), and how gorgeous the cinematography (an Allen signature), the material still isn't strong enough. I keep willing myself to believe that Allen is trying to tell a more poignant narrative here, but I just don't think that's genuine.
But hey, there is something to be said about Allen's romanticism of love. As we continue to immerse ourselves in the culture of flawed characters and relationships onscreen, it is comforting to see that Allen has circumvented the trend for a more nostalgic romance of two ships passing in the night, bad timing getting in the way every time. In this case, it's Bobby and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the secretary of his Hollywood agent uncle (Carrell). The two instantly fall for each other, but in true Allen form, it's, well, complicated; she's dating someone else while he's busy trying to find himself--even after he becomes successful.
It's just not fresh. And despite its best intentions, it's hard to fall for CAFÉ SOCIETY--especially when it never reaches a resolution. The characters don't evolve, the story doesn't mature, and it all just makes you wonder why.
It's uneven, it's empty, and it's redundant. But for what it's worth, CAFÉ SOCIETY does have heart. Too bad it doesn't know what to do with it.
Rating: C- (**1/2 out of *****)
CAFÉ SOCIETY is in theaters Friday.