The praises of Woody Allen the screenwriter and Woody Allen the director are sung often, but Allen hardly gets the recognition he deserves as an actor. Given the presumed similarity between the real-life Allen and his onscreen persona, we assume he's simply playing himself. But it becomes clear "playing himself" is no small feat, as we watch a fine actor like Jesse Eisenberg struggle to nail the rhythms of Allen's dialogue. He can't transition from anxiety to peevishness to vulnerability as seamlessly and as convincingly as Allen did in those early films. But to be fair, Eisenberg's not alone in his miscasting. Carrel plays his role far too broadly to sell his more dramatic scenes. And Kristen Stewart spends the entire film tweaking her delivery. She never makes Allen's dialogue crackle the way Mia Farrow, for example, did admirably in the past.
If Cafe Society had been made a few decades ago with Allen and Farrow playing the romantic leads, we'd most likely have a more charming film on our hands. Though, Cafe Society's cast isn't entirely to blame for its mediocrity. They're working with a second-rate Woody Allen screenplay, a slapdash first draft that's another tired amalgam of his earlier films. But Cafe Society does gain some momentum and poignancy in its final act. It reminds us that even when he's giving us minimal effort, Woody Allen can't help but win us over with his flair for bittersweet pathos.
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