The Jewish High Holy Days seem like the perfect time to bring back my Woody Allen double-bills, where I review one of the auteur’s best films and one of his worst.
Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989)
Woody Allen does Fatal Attraction in one of his most interesting pictures to date. Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a highly respected ophthalmologist and all-round family man. But when his mistress Delores (Anjelica Huston) threatens to tell his wife (Claire Bloom) about their affair, Judah contemplates having Delores killed.
The film’s brilliance lies in Allen’s existential twist; the question isn’t about whether Judah could get away with murder, but whether he could live with himself. There are plenty of films, books and TV shows about suspects avoiding detection, but here the conflict is an internal one; it’s Judah’s palpable guilt that drives the narrative.
Meanwhile, Woody himself plays Clifford Stern, a small-time filmmaker whose own marriage is falling apart. He falls in love with a producer (Mia Farrow), who also attracts the affections of Clifford’s obnoxious brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda). Thanks to Allen’s smart plotting, Clifford’s character arc is the inverse of Judah’s.
It’s also an inversion of the wonderful Locke. There we saw a family man sacrificing his comfortable lifestyle in order to do right by his mistress; this is a man sacrificing his mistress to preserve his comfortable lifestyle. And like Locke, this is philosophical, funny and rich with subtext.
There are constant references to eyes and seeing, from Judah’s profession, to the rabbi (Sam Waterston) who’s going blind over the course of the film. He asks: “You don’t think God sees?” and Judah replies: “God is a luxury I can’t afford.” Does God watch our every move like a celestial Nick & Margaret? Or is our godless universe one of moral blindness?
Allen leaves the question hanging in the air, but at the end there’s optimism; even if the universe doesn’t care, people generally do, and we find a way to ethically navigate our way through life. He poses a number of questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? What would you do in Judah’s situation? What would over-privileged opportunists do?
This is a thought-provoking and tantalising existential drama, packed with great performances, intellectual depth and the kind of irony and poignancy unique to Woody Allen’s work. He builds a wood-panelled purgatory; a place of faltering morality without justice, be it judicial or cosmic. And the line: “Last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.”
Irrational Man (2015)
Speaking of an indifferent universe, Woody just released a new movie, Irrational Man; not a sequel to Spider-Man, though it does star Emma Stone, Woody’s latest infatuation. A philosophy professor, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), contemplates the murder of a corrupt judge. To say that this is Woody Allen retreading old ground is the biggest understatement since Bobby Jindal called Donald Trump a “narcissist.”
Here we see Allen recycling his thematic and narrative material, not only from Crimes and Misdemeanours, but also the woeful Match Point. This never plumbs the depths of the latter; it has the edge over Match Point because the exchanges between characters in some way resemble real interactions between humans. Very clever.
Thankfully, the filmmaker has moved his drama from London back to America’s East Coast, and hired some real actors instead of Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. There are good performances from Parker Posey, Phoenix and Stone, who plays Jill, Abe’s adoring student. And lover, naturally.
But despite the engaging cast and a strong ending, the film isn’t nearly as good as Crimes and Misdemeanours, or as it should be. For all its superficial similarities, Irrational Man is an irrefutably inferior picture, and now I shall explain why.
For starters, the narrative is basic and predictable. Instead of the unravelling existential angst at the heart of Crimes and Misdemeanours, much of the story is spent waiting for Abe to get caught and Jill to learn what the audience already knows. Instead of the interweaving narrative of the ensemble piece, we get a singular story that plays out as expected.
Secondly, Allen has all but abandoned subtext. Everything is spelled out, from the college lectures literally explaining the movie’s philosophy, to the internal monologues externalising the two protagonists’ every thought. It seems that Allen, like Judah Rosenthal, has lost his faith; not in God, but in the audience’s intelligence.
Thirdly, there’s a detached air of inauthenticity that pervades much of his latter-day work, and his drama’s migration from city life to this Harvard bubble can’t help but stifle proceedings; Jill and Abe’s world is one of piano lessons and horseback riding, where people discuss Kant under trees. And Woody now seems to embrace this lifestyle, instead of the cynicism with which he once exposed the black heart of respectable middle-classes.
Ultimately, this is Woody Allen going through the motions, being neither funny nor compelling enough to justify such blatant self-plagiarism. Crimes and Misdemeanours poses profound existential questions; the only question raised by Irrational Man is “how is Emma Stone’s hair so shiny?”