If you're a really long-time reader of the blog (and have a good memory to boot), you know that my reactions to Woody Allen movies have run the spectrum -- I've hated a few, been indifferent to many, and have loved a few. Now there's a new one to place on that spectrum, Café Society.
Set in the 1930s, Allen's newest film follows a young New Yorker who relocates to Hollywood in search of a change. He finds himself struggling to start a relationship with a woman who loves another man, and torn between the vast differences of his new home and his old one.
Café Society is a return to form for Woody Allen, in that the main character is absolutely a proxy for him. In his heyday, Allen would have played the part himself; these days, he serves instead as the narrator. Where other filmmakers might shy away from being so autobiographical when their lives are controversial, he boldly unfolds a story in which adultery and womanizing play more than incidental parts.
Separating the artist from the art is extra difficult when the Allen proxy character is embodied by Jesse Eisenberg, who takes his existing screen persona and muscles it that last step of the way into impersonation territory. Eisenberg is "doing" a young Woody Allen here. But he's not the only character who's hard to root for, and may in fact be among the more sympathetic people in the movie. In short, if you need your characters to be likeable, you can probably just stop here. This movie is not for you.
That said, the story does pick up steam in the middle, as it moves out of mere "slice of life" territory and settles into its actual plot: a love triangle with a splash of "comedy of errors" mistaken identity. It's helped along by some of the performances. Steve Carell plays a rich Hollywood producer as an interesting variation of his persona from The Office -- all the selfishness and unchecked emotion, but without the ineptitude or cluelessness. Parker Posey and Corey Stoll both cut loose and have fun with small supporting roles. And Kristen Stewart is interesting as the third point in the love triangle. This isn't the movie that will convince you she can act (for that, see Still Alice), but neither does she stand out as a weak link in the movie.
Ultimately, this lands somewhere among Woody Allen's average work. If you're willing to endure a slow story to see a great performance, Blue Jasmine is probably more your speed. If plot figures more heavily for you, even if there are no true standouts in the cast, then this probably gets the nod. I'd say it warrants a B- or so.