Small(er) Movie Roundup, Starring Woody Allen, Sherlock Holmes, and Cobie SmuldersSony Pictures Classics
Irrational Man, directed by Woody Allen
To sit through mediocre Allen is sometimes to wonder, Why this actor? I was prepared for that with Joaquin Phoenix here. He plays Abe Lucas, a druggy, dried-up philosophy professor who’s got the campus of a New England liberal arts college in a tizzy before he’s even arrived. Phoenix, who’s leading with his paunch, isn’t going for neurotic. Both the character and the performance debunk standard self-doubt and inadequacy, favoring the liberty in venality. Phoenix is sleepwalking his way through the movie, and, under the circumstances, a half-conscious protagonist is perversely interesting.
For 25 years, actors have been so naggingly eager to have a role, any role, in an Allen movie that you don’t always get the sense that everybody knows what the role means. To be fair, lately with Allen the roles sometimes don’t mean anything. They’re a means to some wrinkle in the plot. But when he’s still capable of delivering something as soulful as Cassandra’s Dream or Blue Jasmine, the complexity of the writing and the direction of the acting make him tough to dismiss as an artist.
This new movie (his 45th) doesn’t approach those kinds of heights. It’s got something approaching a love triangle among Abe, who’s doing a book on Heidegger and fascism; a fellow professor named Rita (Parker Posey); and his brightest student, Jill (Emma Stone). But Phoenix’s “philosophy is bullshit” stupor works. Most of the rest of the film made me sleepy. In the course of Abe’s entanglement with these women, he becomes a murderer — a “good” one, in his eyes. It’s his secret, and the killing invigorates him. But nothing about this movie is practically or intellectually plausible. Lena Dunham’s most recent season of Girls gets more comedy from liberal arts life than does Allen’s last handful of trips to college. So does Noah Baumbach’s upcoming farce Mistress America.
This is another of Allen’s films in which characters advance positions rather than embody them. Very little is allowed to be lastingly funny or suspenseful, and the positions themselves don’t feel close to the truth. Every time Abe said something like “I’m an extremist,” I wanted to say, “Prove it.” There’s an attempted murder here that looks like something from a bad play. The film itself feels like one of Allen’s overbaked short stories. It doesn’t drag on the way last summer’s Magic in the Moonlight did. And yet Stone and Colin Firth made a kind of queasy sense together (none of the pairings in the new movie brings anything interesting out of anyone else). Stone was better in that movie, mostly because the writing was only loosely insulting. She’s got nothing to play here but wide-eyed caregiving. She’s 26. She has to get out of this coed phase. Posey is the sharpest comedian in the trio, and she’s still looking for trouble. Of the three, it’s Rita who’s most romantically hungry, morally anorexic, and creatively stunted. If Allen were truly interested in exploring human darkness, he’d have given Posey the keys to the hearse.
Mr. Holmes, directed by Bill Condon
This is a decent year for movies about old people rediscovering their prime: Al Pacino in Danny Collins; Helen Mirren in Woman in Gold; Blythe Danner in I’ll See You in My Dreams. But what am I missing with Condon’s movie? It’s got Ian McKellen as a rheumy, old Sherlock Holmes, rusticating at an English farmhouse somewhere idyllic in 1947. Racing against dementia and annoyed with Watson’s book about him, he’s trying to write a mystery of his own — while raising honeybees and palling around with the tween son (Milo Parker) of his Irish housekeeper (Laura Linney). The conceit involves Holmes wanting to recast himself as separate from Watson’s beloved myths. That involves decades-old flashbacks to Holmes’s last case, which concerns a frustrated husband (Patrick Kennedy) and his inconsolable, unlucky wife (Hattie Morahan). There’s some other business with Holmes combing the atomic ruins of Hiroshima — alongside a Japanese man (Hiroyuki Sanada) — for a cure for his bum memory.
Jeffrey Hatcher took this story from a 10-year-old book by Mitch Cullin. Neither man is Arthur Conan Doyle. And as someone who neither hungers for yet another incarnation of this character nor understands why anyone would, I watched in subdued bafflement. The fun of Doyle’s books and the glut of shows and movies, including the Masterpiece incarnation with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, is the way personal tensions bleed into procedural matters, the way almost every story is rigged for Holmes’s realignment, for the gears of snobbish certitude to lock into place. In mysteries, there’s almost no “click” like Doyle’s. This movie’s not about any of that. It’s goopy. Holmes is grandfatherly. His little Irish demi-Watson is clever and a touch bratty. (Parker pulling his weight with McKellen and Linney is actually the best thing about the film.) The case at the center of the movie is defiantly anti-“click.”
What I don’t get is why they tell this version of the Holmes story this way, like it’s scripture. Perhaps it’s the only one available to McKellen. And it is a decent excuse for Condon to work with him and Linney again, despite both having been better in the previous outings (Gods and Monsters for him; Kinsey for her). But Condon isn’t the most imaginative director of interiority. He keeps pushing all the maudlin buttons like a crazy switchboard operator. He gives his two stars each A Moment toward the end, at which point you realize that these might have been dull parts to act all along. But what do I know? Sherlock Holmes at this point is more than some detective. He’s Hamlet. He’s Batman. He’s the object of cardboard fan fiction.
Unexpected, directed by Kris Swanberg
The Film Arcade
There’s every reason to be nervous about a movie with Cobie Smulders playing a newly pregnant science teacher at a doomed, mostly black Chicago public high school. You’re nervous that her character Sam’s unplanned pregnancy is going to be treated as precious in an environment in which, to paraphrase one of the school’s administrators, this sort of thing happens a lot. But one of Sam’s best students, Jasmine (Gail Bean), gets pregnant, too, and the movie expands its focus to include her. And it’s a happy surprise. I’ve never seen Bean before. She has a bright, open face, big eyes, and full lips. She looks like a caricature of beauty that is, in itself, beautiful. The movie’s radiance comes from her. She intensifies Smulders’s warmth, which is meant to approach smug, do-gooder racism that’s repackaged as class presumption. And Jasmine eventually smells it.
Swanberg is the wife of Joe Swanberg, the absurdly prolific director of lo-fi comedy. The fi is lo here, too, but it’s freighted. She’s working more from her conscience than from some new or compelling artistic or dramatic place. But her movie seriously considers the ways in which maternity is a universal rite that seems forever open to socioeconomic interpretation. Would putting college ahead of her baby make Jasmine a bad mother? And why wouldn’t a state university have a subsidized-housing policy for poor, single students? Does Sam going to a job interview against the wishes of her husband (Anders Holm) and the beliefs of her mother (Elizabeth McGovern) make her selfish? There’s a pat tidiness to this movie. It’s set amid a crumbling, constricting school system that Swanberg looks at only glancingly. But when it was over, I realized I’d been watching this film conditioned — by movies, by the media — if not for tragedy then for terrible news, and it never comes. Unexpected is indulging the luxury of looking the other way from reality. But Swanberg has made these two women feel real, too.