Ray Cox

Woody Allen has been making films for more than 50 years but "Cafe Society" is not one of his better efforts. In Woody's first film, "What's New Pussycat" in 1965, the studio tampered with it and he resolved to have absolute control over all his projects from then on. Somebody should have been looking over his shoulder on this one as "Cafe" simply lacks energy and vitality, the hallmark of his better work.

The movie, set in the 1930s, features Jesse Eisenberg ("The Social Network") as Bobby Dorfman, a Bronx native, who decides Hollywood would be a place better suited to his talents. Bobby arrives in Los Angeles and contacts his uncle, Phil Stern, played by Steve Carell ("The Office"), a movie mogul and "agent to the stars," who Bobby hopes will help get his career off the ground. Carell's character is supposed to be "larger than life," a charismatic mover and shaker. In fact, he's a boring egotist who constantly drops the names of his clients like so many bon mots at a French writers guild. Ginger Rogers, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis and Joel McCrae, just to mention a few stars from that era, are relationships that shape and define Phil's world and are indeed his raison d'etre.

Phil avoids Bobby for weeks but finally takes pity on his nephew and hires him to perform "trivial errands" and Bobby, ingratiating to a fault, makes the most of them. Phil's secretary, Vonnie (Kirsten Stewart, "Twilight" saga), ends up squiring Bobby around the Hollywood scene and takes a genuine interest in his progress.

Without revealing too much, a love triangle develops with Bobby eventually looking from the outside in, so he returns to New York—alone. Woody's movies are often set in Manhattan, which he always treats with great affection, and he usually features a nebbish protagonist who plays the roles Woody played when he was younger. Now 80, he finds actors like Eisenberg to fill in as his alter ego, and their personas are almost identical in every picture.

Another common characteristic is his penchant for throwing in gangsters when necessary to flesh out his plots. "Cafe" has one in the person of Bobby's other uncle, Ben (Corey Stoll), who complicates the proceedings by causing "cranial separation" to people who offend him or his family. Throw in a couple of pregnancies and you have a Woody Allen formula. In this case, however, it turns into a mess.

Besides being so lanquid, Woody miscasts Kirsten Stewart as Bobby's first love when his second love interest, played by the fetching Blake Lively ("The Shallows"), would have been a much better choice.

Woody serves as the narrator, although he's not in the movie. Toward the end, he quotes Socrates saying that "an unexamined life is not worth living." Woody adds: "but an examined one is no bargain." That's exactly how I felt about "Cafe": too much thought went into it for such little result.

Ray Cox lives in East Sandwich.

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