Since the end of Woody Allen’s Golden Age, say Manhattan, his best films have been the unfunny ones that have something gripping to do with murders or real threats of violence. Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sweet and Lowdown, Match Point, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, all linger in your mind because Allen, who used to be a Lord of Misrule comic, has evolved into a subtler more serious profession — explorer of the deeper chaos that takes over when his talkative characters stop bitching and do something. Like Hamlet, they have bloody thoughts instead of all that Grad-school chatter.
This is one of those bloody movies, though it doesn’t seem so at first. In it, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a tempestuous popular philosophy professor who arrives at a little (fictitious) Rhode Island college where women seem poised to take him to bed. Particularly Rita (Parker Posey) and later Jill, played by Emma Stone, who shines in these unlikely May-September roles Allen writes for her. But Abe isn’t bedding anyone, at least not well. He’s in a funk; can’t find a reason to live despite a lifetime of philosophizing and liberal activism.
The “solution” to his problem provides fine sinister impetus to a film begun in a boring talky fashion: It feels like it wants to be a play. But Allen has good tricks up his sleeve and ultimately succeeds by not being honest. (Let’s just say there are more narrative voices than there are people alive at the end. Like Sunset Boulevard, the cheating works.) We’re left with a response to the glib assertion that a purposeful life alone can provide salvation. Allen is in danger of becoming incisive rather than just funny, even if this is an imperfect film. Professors don’t sleep with their students openly anymore, and Allen doesn’t know the world like he did when he was a comedian. But he knows something profound about narcissists. Something he learned after all these years of mocking posers. His silver years may yet become a wonder.