Well we’ve been here before. There’s the usual sprinkling of cultural references (Kant and Antonioni make it into the opening voiceover), the stricken but charming leading man stuck in a perpetual existential crisis, and the attractive young waif who exists to pull him out. It diverts off the path in a few places, but this is essentially Woody Allen throwing his favourite ideas on screen with little regard to the overall story. The result is a varnished dud.
The complex man grappling demons is philosophy professor Abe, played by the stereotypically dishevelled Joaquin Phoenix. Burnt out and washed up, he comes ashore in a new college with a year of impotence and a drinking problem to weigh him down. A confusing figure to much of the faculty, aside from Parker Posey’s lascivious sex interest Rita, he still manages to hit it off with the students, Emma Stone’s Jill in particular.
Soon, this HR complaint in the making are spending more and more time together. She’s fascinated by his intellectual pessimism, self-destructive tendencies and a streak of activism that ran dry when his wife left him. She’s…well she’s pretty and listens. That’s a significant part of the problem. As the not-quite couple stumble across an abusive judge, pushing Abe into drastic action to regain his mojo, Jill is left to stand by singing his praises to all and sundry. Her boyfriend (Jamie Blackley), impressively long-suffering, has to listen to her repeat his biography endlessly.
Yet there’s no room for Jill to develop, nor anything to develop from. She’s an attractive blank, the most desired woman on campus as her boyfriend states in the first five minutes. This is not the fault of Phoenix or Stone. They are both smooth and fluent with each other, helping a threadbare screenplay to tick along past the point it should have ground to a halt. Posey is also an engaging draw despite finding herself stuck as Stone’s warm-up act.
Awkward relationships aside, Allen fails to address the themes he is so keen for his characters to espouse. Touching on Dostoyevsky and Hannah Arendt, and doing so with painfully heavy signposting, he doesn’t so much grapple with the line between theoretical philosophy, meaningful action and morality as give it a gentle pat down. It’s all flirtation and no invitation to the dance as Abe weighs up crossing boundaries for the greater good.
At least the usual flourishes are still in evidence. There’s a warm, rich feel to the film, accentuated by the jazzy lounge music often heard in the background. He also ends on a high with a comic pratfall that offers the standout laugh. It’s not enough. Pretty as these touches are, no amount of icing can hide the half-baked cake underneath.
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Stars: Emma Stone, Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey
Runtime: 96 min