Anyone who has followed my blog will know by now that I am a big Woody Allen fan. Hence our trip to the cinema to see his latest, despite some very disparaging reviews. Only one, by Kevin Maher in The Times, managed to see beyond the familiar 'gorgeous young chick falls for middle-aged man' moan that greets so many of his films. Maher wrote that one shouldn't complain about the long-standing themes, but should welcome each new spin from Allen's fertile pen. His movies show up most modern releases for the childish pap they are, with their intelligent, witty dialogue, their eclectic casting, their masterful eye for location, and their thoughtful musical choices.
Here we have Joaquin Phoenix as cult philosophy professor Abe Lucas, lecturing for the summer term at a small, prestigious Rhode Island college. To put it mildly he is a grumpy old sod, forever sipping whisky from his pocket flask, literally letting his fat gut hang out, and having lost both his sexual prowess and his lust for life. This doesn't stop indie queen Parker Posey, a married scientist at the college, doing her best to end up in his bed. One of his students is music-major Jill played by Emma Stone in her second film for Allen, leading one to wonder if she is becoming his new muse a la Diane Keaton or Scarlett Johansson. Despite her long-standing relationship with boyfriend Jamie Blackley (who he ?), Jill and Abe become good friends, and she tries to make him lighten up. Of course, being a Woody film, she soon develops strong feelings for him -- the student having a crush on a professor is far from unknown -- while he continually fends her off for a variety of reasons.
While grabbing a snack together in a diner, the pair eavesdrop on a conversation about a mean old judge who is tormenting a local woman in her custody case, largely because he has the power to do so. (Of course the Woody-haters will immediately relate this to Allen's court battle with Mia Farrow those many years ago). Abe resolves to do away with this tyrant who he feels deserves to die; as he carefully plans and carries out this existential act, he is newly energised, regaining his confidence and joie de vivre. He is now able to perform sexually with Posey (and Stone) and seems more alive than ever with new purpose. As Allen told his Cannes audience where the film premiered (to very mixed reactions), if one maintains a rational approach to life everything seems depressing; but once you start thinking that your life has meaning and that what you do matters, you begin to find happiness in your existence.
The murder is big news in the small college community and everyone, including Jill and Abe, has his own theory. However as more and more small details emerge, Jill becomes convinced that Abe is the culprit. He eventually admits the truth to her, but she becomes disenchanted and increasingly shrill. She gives him an ultimatum that he must confess to the crime 'by Monday', especially after another man is arrested and charged. However, he now realises that he really relishes his freedom and thinks he just might take off for Spain with Posey; he begins to understand that one murder can beget another. I will not spoil the movie by revealing which character finally meets its maker, but I will say that it is not necessarily the neatest end to the film and I can easily envision alternate scenarios.
I was intrigued by one of the characters in the movie, one of Jill's friends who looked like a Bette Midler mini-me. I was therefore pleased to note in the end credits that she is played by one Sophie von Haselberg (Midler's married name) and is in fact her daughter. She describes herself as an actress, but this is her first film role, apart from that of a child extra back in the 90's. Her apart, this movie is one of Allen's least starry features. Although his skills are well-thought of, I have never fancied Phoenix's performances, except possibly as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line". Stone and Posey acquit themselves well, although both actresses are something of an acquired taste. The remainder of the cast were all adequate, but not exactly memorable. The choice of locations and the cinematography were up to Allen's usual impeccable standards, but his choice of music -- usually a mix of old classics and trad jazz -- was a little weird, heavy on the Ramsey Lewis Trio's less disciplined harmonies.
Following the film's release here, I read another article positing that creative artists should know when they are past their prime and should know when to stop -- pointing a not so veiled finger at Allen. I couldn't disagree more, since this would deprive the world of so many lost masterpieces in all areas of artistic life. This movie may not be one of Woody's best and I will admit that it could have done with a lighter touch and a leavening of humour -- the things that his script mocks are a little too subtle to create guffaws, just small smiles. It's a talky film, but one that makes you think, and I would not be surprised to find it considered one of his most underrated in the years to come.