Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 24 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 2; Sex 8/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Warning: Possible spoiler in the last two paragraphs!
Ah, you who call evil good, and good evil, who put darkness for light
and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!
In his newest film Woody Allen might seem to be returning to Crimes and Misdemeanors territory, but the Hitchcock-like action segment at the conclusion lands us in a very different place. Maybe this jaded, sometimes cynical—but almost always provocative—filmmaker believes there is a moral arc to the universe after all.
The faculty and students at the small Braylin College in Rhode Island are all atwitter with news of the coming of new faculty member Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix). Author of a well-received book on Heidegger, as well as an activist who worked in Darfur and post-Katrina New Orleans, Abe is even better known for his romantic escapades. Among the rumors are that his wife has just left him for his best friend and that he saw a good friend blown to smithereens by a land mine in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Whatever the truth, Abe has taken to drinking throughout the day from the little flask he carries everywhere, and he has practically given up on the meaning of life.
No wonder two female Braylinites, a science teacher and a brilliant student, take a particular interest in him. Science professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), feeling trapped in her loveless marriage, practically throws herself at Abe, but when she eventually beds him down, he is unable to perform because of his pessimistic outlook. In his philosophy class, where he laces his lectures with doses of Dostoevsky, Heidegger, Kant, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) almost deifies him, her constant talking about him leading her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley) at first into boredom, and then into jealousy. At first drawn by her teacher’s intellect, she finds herself wanting to help the man who spouts such phrases as, “Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation.” She is emboldened when he singles out her paper, telling her that it is filled with original thinking. Soon they are sending time together discussing points of philosophy, which leads to her romantic feelings toward him. To his credit, Abe resists this for quite a while, but…
It is while eating lunch with Jill at a diner that he has what he considers an epiphany moment. They overhear a conversation in the booth behind them in which a distraught mother complains to friends about the judge in her bitter child custody case with her ex-husband. She claims that the judge is corrupt and that he is a friend of her husband’s lawyer, so that the decision she expects will not be fair, leading to the ruination of her life. This leads the two eavesdroppers to speculate about how the world would be a better place if the judge were to be removed from the scene.
Jill takes the thought no further, but in subsequent days Abe pursues the concept, rationalizing that he should murder the corrupt man for a greater cause. This fills him with a sense of excitement. Although he researches the judge and possible poisons (he uses an old fashioned library card index rather than the internet so that he cannot be traced), he does not check to see if the woman’s assessment of the judge is correct—and the film fails to show us anything about the man that would reveal the actual nature of his character. Like a good Existentialist, now that Abe has decided to commit the perfect crime (perfect in that he has no connection with his victim, and thus no provable motive) Abe regains his sense of purpose. In a second, enthusiastic tryst with Rita, she exclaims approvingly that he is now like “a caveman.” He even contemplates her idea of running off together—though he continues his trysts with Jill.
(Spoiler ahead) Abe’s elaborate plot succeeds, both he and Jill reading about it in the newspaper. But through some random occurences the seed of suspiscion is planted in Jill’s mind. What if…? A crisis of conscience also arises for them both when the police investigation leads to their charging a man who had a grievance against the judge with the crime. A question involving both Jill and her lover. Once Abe would not have cared much about his purposeless lif e, but having acted, he does care now. Jill on her part now realizes that her idol stands on those proverbial clay feet. Yet she still cares for him. What to do?
There is a delightful irony in the way the dilemma is resolved at the climax of the film. This involves a small flashlight that Abe had won as a prize for her at a carnival. It becomes a life saver not because of its light-emitting power, but because of its round shape. I am sure that Woody Allen regards this as a matter of chance, but as a person of faith I see it as possibly one more of the quirky ways in which God works for justice. The atheistic Mr. Allen, of course, would not accept this, but he at least does abandon his nihlism in this film, and as I wrote at the beginning of this review, leaves his audience with the possibility that there is a moral arc to the universe—at last in this one instance. This is a worthy follow-up to his two earlier “perfect murder” films, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Match Point (2005).
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September 2015 issue of Visual Parables.