Woody Allen's Café Society is a truly beautiful object to look at. Its production values are superb even by Allen's own standards as a collector of gorgeous settings and sounds. And the cast list matches up nicely with others in the Woodman's huge filmography: Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell, Kristen Stewart, Parker Posey, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, et al.
We're even willing to smile indulgently as the writer-director trots out yet another variation on one of his favorite situations: The ingratiating bewilderment of Bobby Dorfman, a bright young New Yorker (Eisenberg) who moves to Hollywood in the 1930s to work for his gantze macher talent agent uncle (Carell), then falls in love with the uncle's secretary (Stewart), leading to complications. Eisenberg, Carell, and Stewart burble along in sophisticated synch in a series of richly detailed scenes with exquisite cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and Santo Loquasto's opulent production design.
But there are writing problems. The "back home" subplot involving Bobby's family gradually becomes the main event, and the movie wanders off distractedly into an old Warner Bros.-style gangster framework, where it finally peters out. Among more than seventy writing credits dating back some sixty years, Allen has created more than his share of landmark moments. But his output, though steady, is predictably uneven. Precious as it seems at first, Café Society is one of Allen's fuzziest light dramas. He will probably make more, even fuzzier — alongside, no doubt, one or two glimmers of the brilliance he can still muster. The question is: Can he, should he, hang it up while he's ahead? His next one may turn out to be another Manhattan. We can hope, can't we?