Café (2011) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for language and a scene of violence
Running Time: 95 min. (Showtime version runs 103 min.)

Cast: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Daniel Eric Gold, Michaela McManus, Katie Lowes, Hubbel Palmer, Jamie Kennedy, Madeline Carroll, Richard Short, Derek Cecil, Cecilia Ann Birt, Garrett Hendricks, Clayton Prince
Small role: Alexa Vega
Director: Marc Erlbaum
Screenplay: Marc Erlbaum

Review published April 21, 2014

Café is an independent workplace comedy almost entirely set in, you guessed it, a coffee shop, in West Philadelphia.  It primarily stars Jennifer Love Hewitt (Garfield, Garfield 2) as Claire, as a barista who is stuck in a fairly abusive relationship, while musician Todd (Gold, Definitely Maybe), her coworker-with-a-crush, can't seem to find a way to explain to her his feelings.  Hewitt's real-life boyfriend at the time, Jamie Kennedy (Farce of the Penguins, Son of the Mask), co-stars as a drug dealer who fancies doing business in a back corner of the café, while a police officer (Prince, "Dark Justice") comes sniffing around from time to time, hoping to catch him performing an illegal act so he can bust him for the things he has been paying his indebted junkie cousin (Hendricks, Wake) to do for him. 

Other side stories include a computer geek (Palmer, Humble Pie) who has a webcam encounter with a girl named Elly (Carroll, Resident Evil: Extinction) who tells him he is an avatar in virtual world she's created, a married man (Cecil, Men in Black 2) who has a rendezvous with an attractive but lonely film lover (McManus, "Law & Order: SVU"), a social worker (Birt, Head Space) conducting job interviews, and the writer (Short, Public Enemies) looking to create a great work based on his observations on all of their lives.

You might be expecting this comedy to feature a plethora of intersecting storylines that gain poignancy over the course of the movie.  You probably won't be expecting the injection of "magic realism" from time to time, as fantasy elements come into play among a couple of the characters that give the storyline, written and directed by Marc Erlbaum (A Buddy Story, Head Space), whose background studying literature explains the occasional allusion, a much more uniquely spiritual flavor than other workplace comedies of its ilk.  With this angle in mind, you may not be expecting a quasi-romantic workplace comedy to tackle profound issues as Café does, and even if it doesn't run very deep or particularly edgy, there's just enough of an offbeat, allegorical vibe to it to turn what would on its face seem like a throwaway straight-to-video endeavor into a refreshingly insightful 90-minute escape.

The tech specs are on par with a made-for-TV flick, with video-like textures and oversaturated lighting, shot in a real-life coffee house in West Philly.  There are modest FX shots that do stand out, as well as good use of a catchy soft alt-rock soundtrack. The acting is hit and miss with Erlbaum's intellectual writing style, but the quality of the insightfulness elevates the dialogue.

As with other films in which there are multiple intersecting storylines, some work better than others, and it does strain credibility that so much can happen to so many people all at once (though the 'virtual reality' question of the piece keeps it logically viable, in addition to the writer that might be making it all up, universe-within-a-universe style).  The story thread involving baby-faced Jamie Kennedy's unconvincing sleazy drug dealer portrayal, for instance, grows a bit overbearing, foreshadowed by gunshots from the scene at the beginning of the film, for the light tempo of the rest of the story.  However, Erlbaum's positivity-minded script dares to take us places unexpected, so even if the destination isn't exactly where we might have gone with the material, it's certainly a thought-provoking, sometimes even inspiring, philosophical journey along the way.

Qwipster's rating:

©2014 Vince Leo