Dir:- Marc Erlbaum
Starr:- Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alexa Vega, Jamie Kennedy, Michaela McManus, Daniel Eric Gold
The tagline for Café should serve as a warning of the ninety-plus minutes that are to follow. It asks, ‘What if the world you lived in weren’t real?’ and then proceeds to offer up an answer to that particular Philosophy 101 question that is so interminably twee and dull that it makes a years worth of Dawson’s Creek re-runs seem instantly preferable.
The film opens obliquely on a shot of the café that will serve as its sole location, just as it is being approached by four armed police officers. The clientele are evacuated from the premises and then a burst of gunfire sounds out, the scene cuts to the movie title and then the irritating, oft-repeated, motif of a section of butterfly wallpaper. It is no spoiler to mention that the film ends on this same shot, as the butterfly design comes to life and takes off. Quite what Erlbaum is intending with this shot doesn’t reward closer scrutiny. This is the key problem with quirky ensemble pieces like Café, they tend toward presenting some facile allegorical narrative, replete with cod-philosophising, that gradually untethers the characters from any semblance of reality. Occasionally such plot and character abstractions are a conscious product of the director’s story choices, with the mood evoked being worth sacrificing any attempt at verisimilitude. The resulting film may be difficult to watch, but at least it remains aesthetically coherent (3 Backyards for example). Erlbaum’s movie, however, in spite of all its myriad pretensions, comes across as a particularly callow and naive cinematic work, that explores its character’s lives with all of the acuity and perspicacity of a self-absorbed, twenty-something, art student.
It could have been so much better, as for the first twenty minutes the film develops an intriguing rhythm, shuffling through the various conversations of the easygoing coffeeshop community. In these initial exchanges it appears to be playing out like a well-lit, Starbucks sponsored rendition of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, but, oh how quickly such comparisons are forgotten. Veering away from a freewheeling, dialogue-heavy, eavesdropping approach to the café clientele, Erlbaum tries to crowbar ill-fitting plot dynamics into the limiting space of his single location (a feat that further demonstrates the ingenuity of a film like Buried). Before long the film becomes a series of non-events involving a handful of loyal customers, spread out over the week preceding the opening scene.
The most awkward role in the entire movie belongs to comedian Jamie Kennedy (looking somewhat paunchier than he used to), who seems thoroughly bored as the most unconvincing drug-dealer this side of The Trip. Whatever talent Kennedy possessed has long since evaporated and here his presence is the first significant indicator that Erlbaum’s film will ultimately disappoint. At the centre of the ensemble cast is the relationship between Daniel Eric Gold’s Todd and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Claire. They appear to be the sole employees of the café, with one covering the morning shift, and the other the evening shift. Todd is a guileless young musician who is absolutely smitten with Claire. Throughout the movie he tries to overcome his romantic ineptitude and express how he feels, but Claire is already shacked up with an all too possessive boyfriend. Claire appears to be setup as an ‘interesting’ collision of recklessness and compassion (she has tattoos, buys starving junkies food and gives charitable donations from her tips), but, despite some reasonable work from a slightly world-weary JLH, the character never really develops beyond the level of cliché. Erlbaum does manage to elicit one powerful scene from Gold and JLH, when Todd finally verbalises a little of his attraction to Claire and they share a brief, but surprisingly tender, kiss.
The employees are unaware of who their boss, Mr. Green (played by English actor Richard Short), actually is, but it comes as no surprise when he is revealed to be an almost parodic representation of the coffeshop writer and pseudo-intellectual. Erlbaum clearly desires Green to signify some metafictional, God-like presence (something that Madeline Carroll’s precocious Elly ultimately fulfills), but once more the glaring obviousness of the script is not up to the task of subtly delineating a ‘magical realist’ reality in which this role might be invested with a faint whiff of profundity. An even worse offender, in this regard, is the geekish, obese, mentally unstable man, played by Hubbel Palmer, and referred to as Avatar. This character first sees the teenaged Elly on his laptop, where she appears to be talking to him on Skype, or some other video-call technology. Elly tells him that she is a programmer who has invented the world and all those people within it, thus Avatar, as this name might suggest, is no more real than a Sim. It is through Palmer’s Avatar character that we see the café breakout into an absurd dance routine, as well as hear an animated butterfly sing him the lyrics of Bow Wow Wow’s ‘I Want Candy’. These moments of visual eccentricity have been done to death within American independent cinema and as with the wallpaper motif, they offer little of even poetic depth. Avatar and Elly are also the central players in the risible concluding sequence, which attempts to suggest that unselfish self-sacrifice is the way toward enlightenment.
A further significant strand of the plot is taken up by three black Philadelphian characters – the film is nominally set in Philadelphia, although you’d barely know it. One of these figures is Kevin C Walls’s Officer Hesler, who is a patrol officer and cousin to the troubled junkie Tommy (played by Garett Hendricks). Once again Erlbaum fails to establish a meaningful relationship between these two supposed relatives. Tommy’s backstory is briefly outlined in supremely functional dialogue exchanges with both Jamie Kennedy’s Glenn (a friend from college, now turned dealer) and Cecelia Ann Birt’s patronisingly titled Earth Mother. This latter figure is interviewing young people to assist in some kind of inner city outreach mentoring scheme. Perversely some of the best sections of dialogue are given to this character, which helps to distract the viewer from further crude characterisation, in the shape of those people she interviews for the post.
Café seemed thoughtful and a little intriguing when it pencilled in the initial dialogue exchanges between the various members of its ensemble cast. However, by the time these figures come around for a second day of conversation, the dialogue is already running out of places to explore in this absurdly circumscribed non-existent world. Unlike the two moviegoers that engage in a momentary attraction to one another and opt to see the same film again as the foundation of their second date, it is doubtful there will be many repeat viewers of this aimless little failure of a film.