Title: Cafe

Writer-director: Marc Erlbaum

Starring: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jamie Kennedy, Daniel Eric Gold, Hubbel Palmer, Richard Short, Garrett Lee Hendricks, Madeline Carroll, Alexa Vega, Michaela McManus, Derek Cecil

If one has on their “bucket list” seeing a live-action, achingly precious ensemble drama in which a butterfly recites some of the lyrics to “I Want Candy,” then they should definitely see “Cafe.” Then, and only then. Actually… you know what? They may want to hold up and wait a bit longer, rolling the dice to see if some other enterprising would-be auteur works that left-field tidbit into their armchair-philosophizing cinematic treatise on paying it forward or embracing life or some such malarkey. A sincere and wildly self-serious film that seems to chiefly exist due to some pact/dare to do a hiatus-schedule movie together that erstwhile lovers Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jamie Kennedy forged on the set of “The Ghost Whisperer,” this “Cafe” should have its beverage license revoked, no matter the lack of alcohol.

The story unfolds entirely in a West Philadelphia coffee shop (insert “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” joke here), where Claire (Hewitt) works, an in-debt druggie (Garrett Lee Hendricks) falls under the dark sway of a dope-slinging former pal (Kennedy), and a nameless writer (Richard Short) observes a couple (Michaela McManus and Derek Cecil) enjoy some post-movie banter despite the fact that one of them is married. Other characters kind of drift in and out, and the film’s big putative shock/twist occurs when a girl (Madeline Carroll) pops up on the laptop of a dweeby guy (Hubbel Palmer) and tells him he’s an avatar, and that his entire world/life (and that of those around him) doesn’t exist. He resists her revelation, but engages in a series of tests and conversations, and eventually comes to believe her.

Writer-director Marc Erlbaum — who one has to assume is a recent film school graduate who wrote plenty of tortured poetry in high school — is clearly aiming for some grand metaphorical statement with “Cafe,” but his reach far exceeds his grasp. Nothing about the computer girl’s revelation (whether real or phony) particularly deepens or colors any of the action we see unfold (even after she directs her chubby confidant to tell Claire the same things she told him), and the movie’s insights consist of yawning bromides like, “There is no more brilliant light than that which follows darkness.” Wow, deep. The film’s ending, meanwhile, opts for both cheap melodrama and an additional twist, which hints at an additional layer of hokey artifice.

Almost as irritating as the story is the manner in which it’s told. Confined to a single cramped location, Erlbaum and cinematographer Joe White overlight the coffee shop, making it seem like a cheap sitcom or variety show set. They also repeatedly cut against established sight lines, making a mess of spatial conveyance to the audience.

Stooping to the level of the material, Erlbaum’s cast does “Cafe” no great favors, apart from the young and talented Carroll, who radiates an unfussy trustworthiness and benevolence a cut or two above the cheap, college-level Philosophy 101 nonsense she’s pitching. Hewitt is lovely and flirty, which casts a bit of sunshine on a couple brief moments (not even entire scenes), but as her friend-zone-trapped coffee shop coworker Todd, Daniel Eric Gold telegraphs and overdials the bumbling nervousness, almost to the point that you want to reach into the screen and punch him. The single cuts-both-ways bemusement of “Cafe” comes by way of Kennedy. Cast against type as a thug, he seems to be using the movie as some sort of low-fi acting exercise, so for a while it’s actually cool and kind of interesting to see him underplay things in several scenes. The problem is that he also mumbles all of his dialogue, apparently doing his impression on Fenster from “The Usual Suspects,” and that gets old rather quickly — kind of like all of “Cafe”‘s stale offerings, actually.

Technical: D+

Acting: D+

Story: D-

Overall: D

Written by: Brent Simon

Cafe

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By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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