At seventy-nine,Woody Allen can no longer charm romantically inclined girls,so what does he do? Make fun of the romantic temperament,of course.
As writer and director,Allen does his wordplay thing, called antithesis. “Conservative ~in a liberal way” is how Jill,our smitten college senior,( Emma Stone) describes her philosophy teacher, Abe. ( Joaquin Phoenix) Murder as giving one meaning to live is Abe’s existential thought, “The perfect murder made me feel alive.” When Jill cites that Abe suffers from despair, he retorts drolly with “How comfy that would be”.
Joaquin Phoenix enters in a voiceover as Abe Lucas. He is in a late-model,gray Volvo entering a new campus setting in Newport. Abe is relaxed as he bonds with his philosophy students and ironically talks about “situational ethics”.Kant’s perfect world where there is no room for lying foreshadows Allen’s storyline,too. Kierkegaard’s “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” meshes with Abe’s choices and moral posturings.With flask always at hand, Phoenix is so comfortable in the role that he often channels Woody’s mannerisms. This is funny and adds another layer of depth to the film. His definition of philosophy as verbal masturbation does not.
Emma Stone is equally as good as the besotted Jill. When she stares with her big blues and states,”I hate that you think I’m practical”, the audience gets that she is too romantic to throw away the risk of losing a boyfriend for dating her prof. Allen uses a second character voiceover to keep us guessing who is really “the irrational man”,student or teacher. Anyway, Jill sees Abe as a brilliant sufferer. She wears a new perfume on a restaurant date and sighs,”I love that you order for me.”
If Emily Dickinson is quoted as “drunk on air” then Woody is “drunk on music”. His film’s jazzy score is often more entertaining than the film’s action. Besides Abe imbibing non-stop on single malt Scotch, his colleague in the Science Dept. unscrews flasks just as fast. Parker Posey plays the screwable Rita. Initially,she has trouble making the character more than a caricature. As the film progresses,she warms up and plays a dreamy foil to Jill.
When Abe complains,”I can’t write. I can’t breathe”, Rita follows up with “I hope you are not going to send me out into the rain without sleeping with me.”Forthright and gossipy,her crackpot theory and mutual crush rattles Jill and allows for a neat story arc.
Sartre’s “Hell is other people” is shown when Abe sees no way to save himself but by killing the precocious Jill. The storyline is silly. The flashlight roll into the elevator memorable.The passive intellectual finding zest for life in murder is more cause for despair than for humor. Go with your instincts on this one. A dark cloud has crossed Woody’s moon and there is poison in the park.