WOODY ALLEN makes movies with the speed and precision of a short-order breakfast cook. Year after year, he churns out pancake after pancake for an undemanding diner crowd, with Café Society the 47th pancake he’s written and directed in roughly as many years. As pancakes go, it’s round and warm and tasty. It’s a pancake! What else were you expecting? Pour some syrup on it and eat up.
As a movie, though, Café Society is a little harder to rate. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that it’s noticeably half-assed—it’s a Woody Allen movie. Half-assedness has practically become his trademark, particularly in his later years, as his workmanlike craftsmanship has devolved into outright laziness. Its efficiency and carelessness, though, can’t obliterate the easygoing, intrinsic charm that runs through the movie or the romantic wistfulness that pops out of the screen, even as the characters—especially the women—remain woefully two-dimensional. It’s a difficult movie to dislike, a quality it has in common with much of Allen’s work. (This quality is the reason the public at large has torn itself up over the disturbing allegations that have dogged Allen for years.)
It’s not a particularly funny movie. Even the lamest of Allen’s films land a few choice one-liners; oddly, that’s not the case here. A bored-sounding Allen narrates as a young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) seeks to make a name for himself in 1930s Los Angeles. Just like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Bobby ends up doing odd jobs for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell); unlike the Fresh Prince, Uncle Phil lends Bobby his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show him around the city.
Stewart is, by quite a significant stretch, the best thing here, even as her character is obviously sculpted by man hands. Vonnie wears childlike clothes that show off her midriff, and dismisses the phony Hollywood bullshit that permeates the film industry. She’s a perfectly constructed object of lust, and Bobby lusts indeed. Naturally, Vonnie has a boyfriend, so Café Society buffets her between the wills of these two competing men, each of whom is determined to lock that shit down with a wedding ring. Stewart makes the most out of a thankless task, succeeding to the point that we like Vonnie as much as her suitors do.
Eisenberg is the now familiar, always bland Allen stand-in, and the weaselly quality that worked so well for him in The Social Network makes Bobby come across as a bit more of a predator than I think Allen intended. Carell, meanwhile, barely seems to be awake. Several disjointed subplots pop up concerning Bobby’s family back in New York, like his gangster brother Ben (the great Corey Stohl, wasted) and his sister’s troublesome next-door neighbor. In the movie’s most baffling scene, Anna Camp appears as a hooker on her first night on the job. Parker Posey and Blake Lively also have roles, but you’ll have forgotten them as soon as the credits roll.
All these loose ends make it seem like Allen chopped Café Society down from a much longer script, as he reportedly did with Annie Hall. Of course, the opposite is likely true—that Allen is stretching out a few barely fleshed-out ideas—but the possibility of it being a better, more thoughtful movie keeps Café Society mostly upright, against all odds. It’s a good-looking film, too, more than you can say for much of Allen’s 21st century output, and its melancholy ending is weirdly effective.
So, back to the pancake metaphor: Café Society does seem to be a bit undercooked, even runny in the middle, but maybe that’s better than being burnt. It’s definitely not the best pancake Allen’s ever whipped up, but it isn’t the worst, either.