I’ve never before chosen movies made by the same person as my worst of the year twice in a row — mostly because I don’t see Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider movies. But I do attend screenings of Woody Allen movies, because I was such a fan of his for the first couple of decades of his career, and since then he’s been able to happily surprise me roughly half the time with movies like “Blue Jasmine” and “Midnight in Paris.”
Unfortunately, the surprise is how disappointing his work has become since. I chose Allen’s “An Irrational Man” as the cinematic dregs of 2015. Now, his “Cafe Society” may well duplicate that feat for 2016.
The plot starts with Jesse Eisenberg as the latest young actor to do a Woody Allen impression on screen. I don’t know if Allen directed him to do it, or if Eisenberg chose it on his own, but it doesn’t work. Neither does the unnecessary voiceover narration by Allen, who sounds wearily like every one of his 80 years. Worse, the narration adds nothing to a story that doesn’t have much to begin with.
Eisenberg’s character leaves his stereotypical Jewish family behind in 1930s New York to move to Hollywood, where he has an uncle (Steve Carrell) who’s a big shot agent. Carrell can be so good, but here he’s burdened with cliched lines and a boring pace. The role was originally played by Bruce Willis, who did himself an enormous favor by leaving during filming.
The agent doesn’t want much to do with his nephew, but finally agrees to hire him, and assigns his assistant (Kristin Stewart) to show the kid around. Naturally, they fall in love, but she’s involved with another man (you get three guesses who that could be) whom she eventually chooses over Jesse. So, he moves back to New York, starts running a nightclub for his gangster brother (Corey Stoll), and falls in love with another woman (Blake Lively).
This all sounds so much better in my description than it is on the screen. Allen has nothing for Stoll’s gangster to do except whack people and talk tough. At one point, someone asks what happened to his partner in crime and Stoll replies, “Oh, he’s not around anymore.” It’s obvious by the context that Stoll killed him, but Allen doesn’t trust the audience enough to get that inference — he inserts a quick scene of the partner being shot in a barber chair, just to make it clear. He also bathed the whole movie in a sepia tone, as if we couldn’t understand the era the plot unfolds in, and covers the whole thing in the same old jazz soundtrack Allen has used a dozen times before.
“Cafe Society” was financed by Amazon Studios as part of the deal that supposedly includes a six-part television series Allen is going to make for them later this year. Considering his creative drought of late, there’s no reason to look forward to that. I wonder if Amazon is having second thoughts, considering this movie cost $30 million to make but only earned $359,289 in its opening weekend.
I give “Cafe Society” a 1 out of 10. It’s going to be hard to beat in the race to the bottom this year.