Set entirely in a Philadelphia coffee shop over the course of a week, this soporific ensemble-piece puts a secular spin on who is responsible for life, the universe and everything. No, the supreme being isn’t former Ghost Whisperer Jennifer Love Hewitt, who plays an unexpectedly cynical and slightly edgy (tattoos!) counter clerk. The creator who set everything and everyone in motion is an adorably sunny and self-confidently precocious pre-teen named Elly (Madeline Carroll).
Instantly likable Elly makes her presence known to overweight loner Craig (Hubbel Palmer) by appearing first on his laptop screen, then showing up in person. She informs Craig that he’s actually an avatar, and so is everyone else, in an elaborate virtual world she has programmed. She convinces him that she is for real by performing a pair of miracles: getting a blond stranger to tell Craig she loves him, and making a butterfly recite the lyrics to “I Want Candy.” Good enough!
Café also includes several other concurrent storylines about different customers at other tables. A huge problem with the screenplay is that writer/director Marc Erlbaum treats the recurring Elly/Craig subplot as if it is just another nothing-special vignette on a rotating lazy susan of stories. But when there’s a cute kid in the room who can bend reality and knows the answer to every question, it’s pretty hard to care about the everyday problems of a bunch of typical java sippers.
Also, too many of the should-be subsidiary segments feel like padding, as if Erlbaum kept adding new bits until he had enough pages for a feature-length movie. The one about a married man (Derek Cecil) and a jaw-droppingly beautiful single woman (Michaela McManus) who meet at afternoon movies is pointless. Ditto a running series of job interviews conducted by a social worker (Cecelia Ann Birt).
Hewitt plays a good-hearted battered girlfriend named Claire with a perfect smile and eyelashes as big as featherdusters. She does a surprisingly credible job of acting seen-it-all exasperated and emotionally mature without once going giggly-girly, for which adult females everywhere should cheer.
Claire is lusted after by fellow cashier Todd (Daniel Eric Gold), a stutteringly unmanly doofus 30-something who acts like a socially inept 12-year-old. You know the type; they’re all over TV. The movie’s second-weakest moment occurs when they kiss, because it’s impossible to believe Claire would have any interest in encouraging this mealy-mouthed man-child’s puppy-love obsession.
Meanwhile, Elly offers cheerfully reasonable and non-preachy replies to questions such as why she gave her “avatars” free will. “When you can go either way, but you choose to do the right thing, there’s nothing more gratifying to me,” she says. The movie violates the concept that she doesn’t directly control people’s actions at least twice, first with the appearance of the beautiful “I love you” stranger and later when she causes café patrons to dance with each other to a song she likes.
Similarly, the movie’s weakest moment is its ending, a complete cheat that subverts the rules of reality dictated by the all-powerful Elly. What’s supposed to represent a moment of grace in a simplistic religious parable feels more like an “it was all a dream” cop out.
The plot also is hampered by a self-sabotaging structure that puts the movie’s final scene upfront before the credits, then tells the story of what happened during the previous week as a flashback. Knowing a shootout in the café is on its way, it’s hard not to wish the bullets would start flying sooner during some of the draggier segments.