Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 2015. Gravier Productions. Screenplay by Woody Allen. Cinematography by Darius Khondji. Produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson. Production Design by Carl Sprague. Costume Design by Suzy Benzinger. Film Editing by Alisa Lepselter.
Woody Allen returns to the landscape of dubious moral conundrums that he covered so well in Crimes And Misdemeanors and Match Point. Joaquin Phoenix is effective as a philosophy professor who has just begun teaching at a posh east coast university and won over student and faculty alike with his insouciant personality. He drinks day and night, wallows in misery and sees little point in passing on his knowledge, striking up an affair with a science professor (Parker Posey) and befriending a precocious girl in his class (Emma Stone) who immediately becomes obsessed with him. When he and Stone overhear a woman in a diner crying over a legal family issue that is the result of a corrupt judge, Phoenix decides that he will do more for the universe by taking action against this randomly presented villain instead of all the essays he has been writing on moral relativism. With a new purpose in life he suddenly becomes a completely different person, leaving behind destructive behavior, becoming more sexually virile and seeing beauty in everyday reality. This highly enjoyable comedy is loaded with many of the same contemplations that viewers familiar with Allen’s films will recognize, particularly the cynical reality that one cannot be happy without making someone else miserable, and the questioning of just how bad it is to do bad things in a godless universe, but it feels fresh and vital thanks to the performances (Parker is particularly impressive) and the sunny photography by Darius Khondji. It could use a little bit more intellectual detail up front, the description of Phoenix’s work in philosophical theory sticks to basic headlines that even the simplest understanding of philosophical subjects will comprehend (you can’t just say “situational ethics” and “Kant” and convince me you’ve done your research), but the great detail in character work is rich, and many of the more violent confrontations between people are impressively gritty.