It’s hard to take most summer movies seriously. With few exceptions mass entertainment profit is their sole intention and, some may ask, what’s wrong with that? Still there are always several that stand out as more than mere distractions innocent of meaning.
Woody Allen, who turns 80 in December, is definitely an acquired taste dividing audiences and critics. His 45th feature Irrational Man proves that in spades since its May debut at Cannes and late July North American release. It has drawn both effusive praise and caustic criticism, with one New York reviewer even calling it his worst movie. I’ll put my cards on the table: Allen is still one of America’s most consistently interesting filmmakers and I loved Irrational Man, though less so when I thought about it more.
Part of my initial delight is that the scenario of the movie — like last year’s Blue Jasmine set in mainstream U.S.A., not a European escape — pokes gentle fun at academic philosophizing while giving a mock-serious existentialist and Dostoevskian edge to its parade of human foibles, ending with a startling crime-doesn’t-pay twist worthy of Hitchcock. Indeed Irrational Man is shot through with Dostoevskian allusions, particularly to the novel Crime and Punishment, which also influenced Allen’s arguably superior films Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) and Match Point (2005). Dostoevsky is my favourite author and while in St. Petersburg last month I made it a point to visit some of his literary haunts including the house of Raskolnikov, that novel’s notorious protagonist. Irrational Man was also playing in a cinema off the Nevsky Prospekt.
The man of the title is the ill-fated Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a paunchy rather slovenly middle-aged college philosophy professor of dubious reputation whose arrival at Rhode Island’s Braylin College provokes a stir. Lucas has suffered past personal woes (a mother’s suicide, the death of a close friend). Despite professional and humanitarian pursuits he just “can’t get no satisfaction,” to quote the Rolling Stones anthem. He’s stalled writing a book on Heidegger that nobody needs. His rambling lectures touch on Kantian moralism, varieties of existentialism and nihilism without any real commitment yea or nay. One could be forgiven for concluding that all this pondering of the human condition is a time-filling but fruitless dead end. The unattractive picture is of a solitary man adrift who self-medicates with alcohol to alleviate the apparent meaninglessness of his existence.
Given these defaults, Lucas, who also confesses to long-term impotence, hardly seems like much of a catch in the romance department. Yet in Allen’s universe he is capable of setting female hearts aflutter. Specifically two. The excellent Parker Posey plays Rita Richards, an unhappily married fellow professor who gloms on to Lucas from the outset as if he were a raft in her ocean of sexual frustration. Suffice it to say that the seduction attempt satisfies neither. Allen has his most recent sweet-young-thing muse Emma Stone play an impressionable student of Lucas, Jill Pollard, whose parents teach in the music department and who increasingly falls under his tormented-intellectual spell (it can’t be his charms or physique) despite maintaining her loyalty to increasingly exasperated boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley). How can this not end badly?
The twist begins with Jill and Abe overhearing a conversation in a restaurant by a distraught mother explaining how a corrupt mean-minded judge is in cahoots with her estranged husband’s lawyer to deny her custody of her children. Aha, thinks Abe, would not the world be better off were this judge to depart this world? Just a philosophical proposition of course. But as Abe becomes seized with a sense of purpose (i.e., solving the aggrieved woman’s problem), he schemes to pull off the perfect crime. A significant side benefit is regaining his potency so that the platonic relationship with the clueless Jill turns passionate. That is until someone is falsely accused of the judge’s murder, Jill wises up, then threatens to turn him in. Poor Abe didn’t perfectly cover his tracks with the poisoned orange juice and elevator justice can be swift indeed.
With the exception of the closing chance act of retribution, what I didn’t love about Irrational Man is how it plays to Woody’s ever world-weary cynicism which applies to metaphysical inquiry as well as the pathetic quotidian lives of men and women. (A continued infatuation with young women in thrall to older men is also somewhat creepy given his history.) His dialogues are sprinkled with clever pseudo-intellectual references (Sartre’s “hell is other people,” Arendt’s “the banality of evil”), but this philosobabble amounts to little more than throwaway lines from the absurd comedy of life. Frankly, rationality or irrationality is pointless if the human prospect is ultimately meaningless.
Allen’s world lacks anything one might recognize as spiritual strength, faith and hope. He has his Professor Lucas argue that “Dostoevsky got it,” yet he doesn’t get it. Dostoevsky was a deeply moral believer in the higher purpose of human existence. “If there is no God then everything is permitted,” he wrote. He was no nihilist denier of the redeeming divine spark in the human soul.
The faith in humanity of those who survived the horrors of the last century’s world wars was surely far more severely tested than in any Allen fantasy. Nevertheless many, like psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, found reasons to believe (cf www.viktorfrankl.org). And so did Vera Brittain, the English writer, feminist and pacifist whose 1933 autobiography has been expertly adapted to the screen by director James Kent and writer Juliette Towhidi.
Testament of Youth begins in 1914 in the months before the guns of August would throw Europe into the misbegotten and misnamed “Great War” to end all wars. The bright and headstrong Vera — an exceptional performance by emerging Swedish star Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Man from UNC.L.E.) — begs her upper-class parents to be allowed to sit for the Oxford university entrance exam. Her brother Edward is headed there and in these innocent months is joined on the estate by handsome friends Roland (Kit Harington, a.k.a. “Jon Snow” from Game of Thrones) and Victor (Colin Morgan). Vera turns heads and hearts, in particular Roland’s, as they enjoy the pleasures of youth. It’s still very much a world of male privilege even after Vera’s father relents and allows her to pursue higher learning.
The looming catastrophe is that the flower of British manhood is about to be squandered in the trenches over the next four terrible years. Roland, by then her fiancé, is the first to be lost, Edward the last, each tragedy inflicting more wounds on Vera’s soul. She goes to the front as a battlefield nurse but realizes that nothing can heal much less justify this senseless horror. She seeks sanctuary when crowds celebrate the 1918 armistice. Reflecting on the sorrow and pity of it all, she joins forces with peace activist George Caitlin, her future husband, to campaign for reconciliation with the defeated powers and general disarmament. That is the necessary lesson to be drawn from an otherwise meaningless waste of youth. As Vera, Vikander’s brilliant moving portrayal does full justice to a challenging role.
Events like the First World War, or subsequent slaughters and genocides, might provide evidence on a grand scale of the enduring flaws and follies of human nature in which pessimists and cynics like Woody Allen indulge on a tiny canvass. Yet the inspiring story of Vera Brittain shows how, in a violent and misogynist world, it was possible to find reasons not just to carry on but, as men and women striving for a better future, to believe that humanity is not beyond saving from its many errors. Indeed that testament of faith, hope and love is what ultimately makes life worth living.