Café Society

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I realised something when I started watching Cafe Society; I’ve lost it with Jesse Eisenberg. I used to like him; I thought he was particularly good in Adventureland, Zombieland and The Social Network, but now looking at him up on the big screen I just found him annoying. The pauses in his speech grated on me and he looked more than a little smug.

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I’ve had similar changes of heart with film actors before. I can’t really watch Johnny Depp now yet once I thought he was great, one of those are performers who could be both the leading man and the character actor with equal skill. I used to quite like Shia LaBeouf too.

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Curious to trace when my opinion of Jesse Eisneberg had changed I had a little look down his filmography on IMDb and was a little surprised to find that, unlike Depp and LaBeouf, it had only taken one film for me to go off him. As it turns out I am apparently unable to forgive him for his portrayal of Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman.

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I don’t feel entirely comfortable with this. He was bad in Batman v Superman for sure but surely that’s as much down to his director as it is to him, probably more so. I certainly don’t blame Cara Delevingne for all that stupid gyrating in Suicide Squad; David Ayer made her do it. Similarly I shouldn’t judge Jesse Eisenberg for the crimes of Zack Snyder. Nonetheless, here he was in Woody Allen’s latest movie in a love triangle with Kristen Stewart again and I couldn’t engage with him. I could not side with his character and I desperately wanted the girl to go for the other guy which I am not sure was where the film makers’ had intended my sympathies to lie.

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His morally confused scene with a prostitute at the start of the film didn’t help me warm to his character either but again, he was just delivering the lines. It’s director Woody Allen speaking those words and expressing those sentiments really. Actually this last sentence is particularly spot on; Eisenberg is just the next in a long line of actors to channel Woody Allen on the screen now that the man is too old to play these lead parts himself. His performance is so on the nose that it is surprising these two men haven’t worked together before. With all that clumsy stuttering he is even more Woody than Will Ferrell and Owen Wilson were. It doesn’t matter though, I still couldn’t go with it.

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Interestingly my opinion of Kristen Stewart has changed in the other direction. I’d given up on her half way through the second Twilight film but was wrong to do so. Following Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice and this I can now see that she is actually a quite brilliant actor. Stewart has a barely tangible sense of subtle screen electricity. It is hard to put your finger on why but she has an individual type of effortless screen charisma that makes her totally watchable. I am aware that just makes it sound like I find her attractive but it is not that at all. Blake Lively, who also features in the film, is the more classically beautiful actress but Stewart has a genuine talent that makes her stand out from her peers.

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Cafe Society tells a fairly simple tale of a young man who moves from New York to LA in the 1930s, gets work in his uncle’s Hollywood agency and falls for a pretty girl. The dual backdrop is the glitzy movie industry on the West Coast and the fashionable mob run cafe clubs on the East but this is just icing on the cake. At its centre this is a straightforward ‘boy meets girl but girl already has another boy’ love story. In fact the details of the two worlds in which the protagonist finds himself moving are frustratingly thinly sketched. There are dozens of movies that have explored these two cultures in much greater detail and here they are barely a footnote to the central romance(s). It feels as though Allen had three things he could have concentrated on; shallow actors, violent hoods or regular Joes, and in the end none of them really get developed. Both Hollywood and the New York mafia are dealt with quite flippantly, one through a series of expensive parties and famous name drops and the other with a few sharp suits and some misjudged comedy murders.  The romance itself is engaging but it doesn’t reach into your chest and tug hard on your heart strings the way the best love stories do. I didn’t much care about the outcome, although conversely I was satisfied with ending.

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What the film does have is two good performances, clearly not Stewart and Eisenberg but Stewart and Steve Carrell. Carrell plays the rich uncle and his performance has the heart that the lead lacks. The movie is also shot beautifully. Superficial as the settings are they do shine and sparkle.

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Ultimately the film is a little too light but I expect that is what Allen was going for. Still, it is hard to imagine it would have got made without such a big name director behind it. Woody Allen’s filmography may not be as consistently brilliant as it was twenty years ago but I don’t think he struggles to find funding. The film is nice but it’s not unmissable and I am sorry Jesse, I am sure we can turn this round if you stay well away from DC Superhero movies, but it would have been better with a different leading man.

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