Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
by Jon Cvack
I’d package this story together with Woody Allen’s other films about murder - Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream, possibly putting this in second place, especially after my third viewing of Match Point.
It involves a visiting Philosophy College Professor Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) whose student Jill (Emma Stone) starts to fall for him while dating a person around her age. Abe is struggling against meaninglessness in the world, thinking that most of philosophy is intellectual masturbation, never really producing any actual change. He’s developed a strong drinking habit, kicking back whiskey between classes as him and Jill stroll around campus, discussing important works of art, literature, and the great thinkers.
This is one of Emma Stone’s best roles. She’s incredibly striking and accessibly pretty, as though pulled from the new wave per the likes of Jean Seberg (from Breathless) or Claude Jade from Truffaut’s Doniel series. Each moment she’s on screen we’re able to forget about the illogic of the story, which quickly unravels in a way that I don’t completely understand. Allen’s best film in his “Murder Series” is Crimes and Misdemeanors, whose ending is grim, with Judah facing zero consequences, allowed to return to his perfect life, while Cliff, who attempted to retain his integrity, has lost everything. Unfortunately, Woody’s other Murder Films all seem to result in happier conclusions. This isn’t to say I necessarily think that Jill should have been murdered so much as the ending shouldn’t have been revealed earlier on with Jill’s arbitrary suspicions, only to have them corroborated by another loused up professor Rita (Parker Posey) who just so happened to have been told by one of her students that Abe was in the lab looking at lethal chemicals. I hated this moment. It was too easy and I saw where it was headed from a mile away the moment he entered the lab.
Another criticism is one I read in the NYT highlighting that while Abe has the physicality of a man who has given up on life, we’re never really convinced that he knows anything that he’s talking about. I’m on the fence with this one. On the one hand I agree, but I attribute it less to Phoenix than to facile writing about the ideas of Kant, Nietzsche, etc. If Abe was experiencing such nihilism, viewing philosophy as futile, then his delivery should be uninspired and dispassionate; he doesn’t seem to know anything because he doesn’t care and thus his delivery sounds dull. Still, it’s a problem in many Woody Allen films. I recall a DP/30 interview with Josh Brolin for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and he mentioned Allen’s persistence on sticking to every single word in the screenplay; as in, don’t even miss a comma (which is particularly funny since in one Woody Allen biography I read he denies such allegations). Ever since I’ve noticed the stiff delivery more and more. I can’t help wondering how much better it’d be they were allowed more flexibility.
Still, though, Emma Stone is able to make each line feel believable, even if you wonder what the point was to begin with. She captures the naivety and confidence of a college woman, who remains impressionable and yet convinced she knows everything about life. I’m not sure Woody Allen has caught up on relationships between young 20-somethings and men over twice their age and how uncomfortable that’d make parents, but I suppose that’s a whole other story.
Beyond the performances and shortcomings is the philosophy that I’m always interested in seeing Woody Allen explore. Considering three of these films came out in the last ten years there’s an obvious interest with what Dostoyevsky and Camus would explore in their work. Woody Allen has professed his atheism both onscreen and off, and explored it in similar ways Dostoyevsky had; namely, that within a Godless world there are no morals. Society and government has set up rules, but if you’re never caught, there is no larger deity that will eventually punish you. When Abe and Jill overhear a family who’ve been caught up in a Kafka-esque legal system, with a judge that in no way cares about justice, Abe’s nihilism and depression quickly vanish. He knows that it’s within his power to kill the judge, provide justice, and so long as he’s never caught nothing will happen and he can rest content that all he had learned was put to practical use. While the story doesn’t get too intricate with Abe’s plan to kill the judge, it’s less about the method and more about what the decision has provided with him. The weight of a meaningless universe is off his shoulders and he finally feels free to live.
I was particularly bothered by the method of murder. Not that poison wasn’t a good idea, so much as Abe thinking that exchanging the drinks while sitting next to him in broad daylight would have gone unnoticed. All it would have taken is one person to have remembered Abe sitting next to him. Yet beyond the hackneyed method is Jill’s quick and witty deconstruction of the situation. It’s not so much coming up with poison so much as her jumping to the conclusion that Abe’s responsible. It all happens so fast and her suspicions seem more convenient to advancing the narrative than to logic. To think it was only after meeting Rita that her suspicions were confirmed seemed far too convenient. If the film was fifteen minutes longer this process could have been drawn out a bit, and the relationship between Rita and Abe could have been explored it a bit more, with possibly Rita’s husband getting a whiff of infidelity. Instead, it’s all recounted through dialogue.
I did enjoy Abe’s reaction upon Jill’s accusation. I imagined the fear taking on a whole new level, while before it was about the act of murder, now it was about the certainty that you’re caught; that whether you confess or not you will be going to jail for the rest of your life. And yet I was still surprised by Abe’s attempted murder and bummed over his death. It’s not that I wanted Jill to survive, so much as it all wrapped up so clean. Jill goes back to her boring boyfriend, who seems far more forgiving than most guys would be after learning their girlfriend was sleeping with their professor. I suppose Jill learned the power of ideas, but even that seemed to hold little significance. She seemed so unaffected after the event, as though awkwardly removed and able to just continue on with her upper class life filled with straight A’s, piano lessons, and a privileged life.
The movie didn’t feel so much nihilistic as bourgeois. People have accused Woody Allen of only portraying that side of life, but for a man who’s lived nearly 75% of his life in that environment I can’t fault him and kind of appreciate a glimpse into that world. I just think the heart and depth that seemed to peak with Allen's films during the 90s and quickly faded during the 00s has completely vanished now. It’s still fun to watch, but the films seem to be missing his amazing insights into both the world and relationships. They seem flat, as though early drafts of what could be amazing. I’ll keep watching them. I think he’s got a few more classics to go.
BELOW: Joaquin plays some Russian roulette
Thoughts on films, old and new
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