But making a motion picture needs more than just a good script and beautiful photography to come alive on the screen. It needs acting. And this picture really lacked that element. I would be unfair to the cast to say that they did a terrible job. They didn't. But I couldn’t help feeling throughout the movie that Woody Allen could have jumped in to tweak their performance or at the very least given his characters the slightest idea of what he wanted. Instead they wandered around the outskirts of their characters' psychologies without ever giving a genuine performance. The poor acting along with the painfully obvious attempts at creating beautiful moments in the film made it look like a gorgeous tailored suit that the tailor left the seams exposed on. You can't assume that because you used great fabric the suit will make itself.
Casting the warm and endearing Steve Carrell as the big shot Phil Stern was a mistake. From the moment he answers the phone in the opening scene—at the very Hollywood party in his swanky home—you can just feel that it’s not the right fit. If his demeanor were just a cinch more slapstick, you would think that he was making a parody of the man behind the desk. But he wasn’t. He was honest-to-God trying and failing to be someone that demands respect from the people around him and authority over them, including the audience. This coupled with his troubling love affair with a girl who (for reasons foreign to me) is "amazing" just made it difficult to empathize with Phil. As a result, you don’t like him or hate him. You also don’t pity him.
Vonnie is played by Kristen Stewart, an actress so bromidic that seeing her making attempts at being carefree and likable had my face contorting in ways one does when he or she smells a fart. She had moments throughout the picture where she nailed it, but they were only moments. As a whole, Vonnie came off as flat, stodgy, and overall pretty unlikeable. Which then makes the viewer ask, "So why is it again that these two men are so irrevocably in love with her?"
Jessie Eisenberg as Bobby gave an almost-stellar performance. Although he settled into his role in the second two thirds of the picture, one cannot wash away the cliché Allenesque behavior of the scene with him and the hooker. This smacked so much of Woody Allen's earlier work (played by Woody himself) that it took the spotlight away from Café Society as we inevitably took a trip into the past reminiscing on the neurotic, existential, self-analytical comedy of Allen's history. That’s the dangerous path that prolific artists can sometimes take; where everything becomes an overused cliché or "Allenism." Later, though, Eisenberg seems to take the reigns of Bobby's character and flourish into something that is of his own making. He gave a terrific performance.
All the supporting roles were cast well with the exception of Bobby's brother, Ben, played by Corey Stoll. Ben was supposed to be a ruthless gangster, but came off as a caricature of that persona. Every gesture, line of dialogue, and facial expression felt scripted and forced as if Allen's goal was to create a parody of sorts. Only this parody danced on such a fine line of drama and comedy, you just ended up with unsettled feelings about the picture in its entirety.
Then you had the moments that Allen seemed to yank out of thin air and lodge into his narrative. One in particular was Vonnie coming back the Bobby's apartment after a breakup. The catharsis was magnified by the coincidental power outage that saturated the room with the fiery hue of the movie's perpetual sunset. Although the photography was beautiful, the way that it was set up was poorly directed and forced as he had not established earlier that Bobby's apartment has this problem with the power, as he points out in the movie. Again, exposed seams.
Woody Allen does not have to convince anyone that he is a terrific filmmaker, but Café Society seemed to be desperate for our praise. As if in his old age, Allen is afraid of the sun finally setting on his career as a filmmaker. He could have done a lot more with this script.