(director/writer: Woody Allen; cinematographer: Darius Khondji; editor: Alisa Lepselter; cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Abe Lucas), Emma Stone(Jill Pollard), Parker Posey (Rita), Jamie Blackley (Roy), Betsy Aidem (Jill’s mother), Ethan Phillips (Jill;s Dad), Tom Kemp (Judge Thomas Spangler), Sophie Von Haselberg (April), Meredith Hagner (Sandy), Michael Goldmith (Mark), Robert Petkoff (Paul, Rita’s husband); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson; Warner Bros; 2015)
“A Woody Allen cynical meaning of life film about a burned out philosophy professor.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A Woody Allen (“Match Point”/”September”) cynical meaning of life film about a burned out philosophy professor trying to deal with his depression. The auteur goes existentialist on us, as he gives us a Dostoevsky “Crime and Punishment” morality tale but with a suspenseful Hitchcock-like ending.
The whiny Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) has hit rock bottom and has no more reason to live when he takes a summer job teaching a philosophy course on “ethical strategies” at the prestigious fictional Braylin College in Newport, Rhode Island. The professor has a rep for being radical, a boozer and a womanizer. He immediately hooks up with the horny same-aged married faculty colleague Rita Richards (Parker Posey), who wants to escape from her loveless marriage and uses him in the hopes he will take her away to live a fantasy romantic life in Spain. The middle-aged professor also begins an affair with the naive romantic student, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), an aspiring concert pianist who is bored with her dull but likable boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley). Jill is overcome by Abe’s brilliant mind, his rebellious nature, his gift of gab, exotic travels and tortured soul, and against Abe’s advice ditches her dependable boyfriend for this wild fling.
Abe still feels bottled-up and is looking for something in his life to be meaningful. One day in a diner with Jill they overhear strangers at the next table talking about a detestable judge (Tom Kemp) who ruined their lives, and he reasons the world would be better off without him. The teacher schemes a perfect murder of the judge and gets away with it. It’s only ruined when an innocent janitor is charged with the crime and the professor doesn’t have it in him to do the right thing and confess even as Jill, now aware Abe is a killer without a rational reason for the homicide, threatens to go to the authorities.
Though always a rascal the teacher knows how to talk glibly about philosophers like Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and in superficial ways gives us a crash course in theoretical philosophy. He’s also good at exploiting the flaws of others without ever exploring his own flawed life philosophy.
During the semester, Abe will overcome his impotency, lamely excuse himself for leaving his activism in hot spots in Darfur and the Hurricane Katrina victims to return to academia, frighten students at a party by playing Russian roulette and showing an utter disdain for his field of study by comparing it to masturbation. It’s a black comedy, one that Woody mines for ideas and a way out of his usual intellectual and emotional dilemmas over finding love or being moral in such a godless and imperfect world.
REVIEWED ON 9/5/2017 GRADE: B