Alright, children, sit down and shut up – it’s story time.
After watching Magic in the Moonlight, it occurred to me that Woody Allen (since he makes one new movie each year) would have a movie coming out soon for 2015 – if it wasn’t out already – and this would be one of my last chances to see a film of his in theaters. Since I had never seen a Woody Allen film in a theater, I knew I had to arrange to see it, but after looking online, I found that his 2015 film – Irrational Man – was not showing anywhere in my area, and I started to lose hope. However, it just so happened that, on the one and only day that the film was getting released across the country, I was up in New York for a family reunion, and I was able to drive from our campsite a half hour north to a Regal that was showing it. Based on the mostly negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, I wasn’t sure that it would be worth all the effort, especially since I didn’t have my own car to drive, but I went for it anyway, only to find that I was the only person at the screening. Having the theater to myself made for a movie-watching experience like no other, which was fitting since it was a movie like no other … and yet somehow it still managed to be mediocre.
I should preface my harsh criticism of this movie by saying that I didn’t hate it. I was having a good time for the most part, largely because I got to spend time in the company of some neat characters and, in a different way, of a neat director. The Ramsey Lewis score set a great tone for the picture that kept me in a good mood for most of the film, and even though “The ‘In’ Crowd” was overplayed to the point that I got a little tired of it, I was still pleased by the way that Woody used such a fantastic song to move the film along. The plot had a lot of cleverness to it, and it was very fun watching the mystery unravel and the drama intensify. This means that the movie kept me entertained, so I must say that I enjoyed it.
Since I’m apparently the only person who has ever displayed interest in seeing this movie, I trust that no one will mind if I spoil it. A very bright college student named Jill (Emma Stone) is very excited to be taking classes from a famous philosopher and writer, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), but he turns out to be washed up, worn out, and in an existential crisis. As he becomes closer and closer friends will Jill, he starts to feel a little better about life, but her boring boyfriend is concerned that the two are falling for each other – and rightfully so, since she has become more romantically interested in Abe than in Boring Boyfriend. Then, Abe overhears a story about a corrupt judge who’s been ruining the lives of a family, and he decides to just kill the guy.
Seriously. Just go with it.
So, he stalks the judge, figures out his morning routine, and then concocts a clever way to kill the man without getting caught. While the friendship (and then some) with Jill may have brought some new meaning to his life, it is oddly the plotting of the murder that makes him feel really, really alive like he hasn’t felt in ages. This takes away much of his humanity, making it harder for the common audience member to relate to him, but it does make the story more interesting. Eventually, Jill figures out that Abe was behind the murder, and she simply must report him to the authorities, primarily because another man – an innocent man – has been convicted of the murder Abe committed. Naturally, he decides to just kill his friend Jill.
No, really. That’s what happens. And he acts like it’s merely another chore on his to-do list.
By this point, we don’t feel for him at all, and we’d be okay if he died … so, sure enough, he ends up dying. When he attempts to throw her in an elevator shaft, he slips on a flashlight that he got her at a fair – dramatic irony at its random-est – he falls into the shaft himself, leaving her to report him to the police without his opposition. What’s worst is that, in spite of the fact that she stated repeatedly that she loved Abe more than she loved her boring boyfriend, she is now happy to return to her boyfriend, whom she randomly realizes is her true love. The disastrous problem with this is the same problem I’ve had with Allen’s writing since the day I first watched one of his films, but this is the film in which it’s most blatant: if a story very clearly states that x is not the solution, then it cannot be suddenly decided that x is the solution unless the value of x is completely redefined. To make the solution to the conflict exactly what we all know cannot be the solution to the conflict is not a smart twist, but rather laziness, and it is this type of laziness that bugged me a little in Play It Again, Sam, that bothered me even more in Manhattan, and that nearly made me punch a hole in the wall after watching The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Another part of the problem is that, given the film’s simplicity, it didn’t need to be as long as it is. It’s not that this movie is very long – its running time is only 95 minutes – but rather that there isn’t sufficient content to fill the running time. The result is redundancy; the same concepts are restated and restated: the boyfriend is really worried that she’s into Abe, she says they’re just friends, then she flirts with Abe, he turns down her advances, rinse and repeat. Either the movie’s concept did not have enough places to go, or Woody didn’t think of any more. This too makes him seem lazy, but perhaps what looks to my youthful eyes as laziness is actually the 80-year-old filmmaker’s tiredness. Because the man has reached his limits, I fear that this is one of the last films we’ll ever see from Woody Allen … so maybe it was worth the effort to see it after all.