by NEVIL GIBSON
The mid-winter international film festival is certainly the year’s highlight for serious filmgoers, but the fare can often be heavy going.
So a new Woody Allen film comes as a welcome relief. His more recent films are little more than paper handkerchiefs — lots of talk, small cast and inexpensive locations.
Of his most recent — he can turn out up to two features a year — one was his biggest commercial hit in years (Midnight in Paris), one was a critical success and reached Oscar status (Cate Blanchett as leading actress in Blue Jasmine) and two were considered duds (Magic in the Moonlight and To Rome With Love).
Personally, I thought Rome had more going for it than Paris, which was a little too twee and clichéd, while Magic had its moments when Emma Stone was on screen.
She returns in Allen’s latest, Irrational Man (eOne), in a role that fits her impulsive character: a student who is strongly attracted to her maudlin philosophy lecturer (Joaquin Phoenix) at an East Coast university in the United States.
This switch of location back to America also signals that Allen may have ended his practice of setting his films in a string of European tourist destinations.
His scripts often parody pretentious musings of life’s lack of meaning. Here he exploits the full spectrum of philosophical fads, from Kant and Kierkegaard to Heidegger, existentialism and Sartre.
Phoenix is one of the most complex actors in Hollywood.
He specialises in roles where articulation of feelings is difficult and facial expression is everything (The Master and Inherent Vice are good examples).
This is not always easy on the audience, and in every conversation you expect him to dry up or flee the scene.
Stone is the opposite; she is bubbly, eager and persuasive.
When thoughts turn to action, as the lecturer carries out a mortal sin for what he thinks is the greater good, she grinds him down to a state of contrition.
This follows a conversation they overhear in a diner about the decisions of a bullying judge.
The tone resembles the murder comedies of Alfred Hitchcock (The Trouble With Harry, Strangers on a Train and Torn Curtain are all invoked) and are overlaid with some pseudo-talk about rational choices.
But, as the title suggests, this is taken too far and these actions exceed their justification. Allen is no moralist, or even a philosopher, so this seriousness is always leavened by the characters being aware of how silly they seem to others.
This is best demonstrated by Parker Posey, who plays a wife looking to escape her marriage and is also an object of the lecturer’s attentions.
The role may be a cliché, but so are the other characters, who serve Allen’s purpose of giving the actors plenty of rope and letting them get on with it.
This easygoing style doesn’t sit well with all viewers and anyone attending an Allen film needs to appreciate they are all variations on familiar themes.
Rating: Mature audiences (sex scenes and offensive language); 95 minutes.
by NEVIL GIBSON