How you feel about Woody Allen’s recent films in large part comes down to how you feel about productivity. Allen is a director so obsessed with output—he has said that keeping busy makes him forget about death—that he makes a movie almost every year whether or not he has something noteworthy to say. Some find this irritating, a man playing alone in his sandbox and asking us to watch him. Others, and I’ll confess to being in this camp, find value in the routine. Roger Ebert famously said, “the muse visits during the act of creation, not before.” Which is to say, you can’t make anything great if you don’t make anything. Sometimes it’ll be good, sometimes it’ll be bad, sometimes it’ll just sort of sit there, but it makes no difference, because by the time people see it, you’re already on to the next thing. You can’t win if you don’t play.
So either you cut Allen slack for the occasional dud, knowing that every once in a while he’ll deliver a gem, or you grow impatient as his movies grow less and less relevant. Where you land on that spectrum will determine whether or not you derive much enjoyment out of Café Society, his 46th and newest film. The movie is trifling, a bit meandering, and certainly a little repetitive, not just on themes that Allen has hit in previous movies but even this movie itself—I’m pretty sure one character says the same line twice. If you’ve seen every single Woody Allen film—and I have, oh have I ever—you’ll find some pleasure in watching Allen discover a new way to chase down one of those rabbits he’s been pursuing for 40 years. If you are a casual observer just wondering if this wisp of a story is worth your 12 bucks, you’re probably going to be left wanting. Café Society is Replacement Level Allen. There are pleasures to be found. But you have to look a little harder than usual.
The film follows Allen avatar Bobby Dorfman, played for the second time (after To Rome With Love) by Jesse Eisenberg, who is particularly skilled at playing Allen’s surrogate; he has a peevishness that quietly undercuts his characters’ indulgence, a wink that he knows this guy’s kind of full of it. Dorfman’s a Brooklyn kid who moves to Hollywood in the 1930s to beg his movie studio executive Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) for a job, only to end up falling in love with his assistant Vonnie, played by Kristen Stewart. Meanwhile, the family business back in New York beckons, headed by his mobster brother (Corey Stoll), and Dorfman must balance idealism with the hard-headedness of the real world. This is not the first time you’ve seen this Woody Allen plot. I’m not sure it’s the first time you’ve seen it from him in the last five years. As it turns out, Vonnie’s having an affair with Uncle Phil, but she’s also in love with Bobby, and the love triangle lolls out without much urgency but also not without its fair share of charm. (It’s also of note that Allen also narrates the film as well, and that his voice sounds worryingly terrible.)
Café Society isn’t a hangout movie, but it can feel that way sometimes, because Allen has neither the energy nor the patience for much of a tick-tock plot anymore. Whole subplots meander and go nowhere, or they build up to no payoff. It looks like Bobby’s brother is being set up as some sort of moral foil to the main plot in the style of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but then Allen just drops it for no particular reason. Bobby as a character sees Vonnie not as a person but a vessel for his own securities, but Allen is so slack with Bobby’s story that you’re not entirely sure Allen always sees that. (I think he does? I hope?) The movie is meandering in a way that’s sometimes endearing— Allen’s has an old man’s let’s-get-on-with it unfussiness that has its charms—but does not always serve his story well, particularly one has slim as this one. He does, as always, have the advantage of a terrific, game cast. Carell is excellent at showing Phil’s desperation, his neediness and his quiet, hidden empathy, but the real star is Stewart, who is on quite a run these days. She has a near-nothing role but turns it into something a little daring, a would-be Girl Friday who sees all the angles and makes the smart play while never losing touch with her inherent goodness. The movie also looks fantastic. This is the first time Allen has worked with famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Last Tango in Paris), and the film—also Allen’s first shot on digital—is lush, sharp, and packed with far more visual detail than you’ve seen of him from late. Even when the movie’s not moving all that swiftly, Storaro always makes you feel like you’re going somewhere.
This is definitely not one of Allen’s clunkers from the last decade. (Magic in the Moonlight was the last real D.O.A. one, and it’s possible the Larry David-starrer Whatever Works is Allen’s worst film.) But it’s not one of the ones you wait around for, the ones that justify the skippable ones. There’s a sense that Allen hasn’t made a great movie in a long while, but I think that just comes from his making a movie every year. Every four years or so, he lands a big one, whether it’s Blue Jasmine (2013), Midnight in Paris (2011), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) or Match Point (2005). (Only Quentin Tarantino and I would put Anything Else on this list.) At the pace he’s been going, Allen’s due for another breakout hit any day now. I’m afraid this isn’t quite it. But there will be another one next year, as always. You can’t win if you don’t play.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit .