Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Irrational Man, Mr. Holmes

Irrational Man
Mr. Holmes

Murder is fun in Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man,” which takes a while to get revved up but builds great comic momentum – and an inexorable logical argument for selective homicide as a societal good – in a special last half-hour that relegates the trifling “Magic in the Moonlight” to evanescent memory.

In a brilliant piece of casting, Joaquin Phoenix plays the sought-after philosophy professor Abe Lucas, whose mere arrival enlivens staid Braylin College. He and Jill (Emma Stone), a talented student, strike up a friendship that she wants to take to another level, but he tells her to stick with her nice (if boring) boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley). Meanwhile, the married chemistry professor Rita (Parker Posey) does succeed in bedding Abe, and has adolescent fantasies of running away with him to Spain. 

Abe has spent (wasted, he’d say) his life in an unavailing search for a defining act that will give it positive meaning. He thinks he’s found it when, at a diner, he and Jill overhear a woman in the next booth tearfully tell friends about her divorce and child custody case and the judge who seems to be in cahoots with her husband. Wouldn’t the world be a better place – albeit infinitesimally so – if that judge were done away with? The philosopher and the starstruck student agree that it would, but not what to do about it. Both leads shine, Phoenix making Abe’s giddiness at this new direction uncontainable and Stone conveying what to the undergraduate Jill seems like a momentous struggle between virtue and an image of her future in which she had allowed herself to begin to invest.

Posey, looking notably older now than ever before, completes the trifecta with a hilarious and laudably vulnerable turn as a woman who appears to have it all but doesn’t indulge the pretense for a moment or deny her need. Cinematographer Darius Khondji lends his customarily colorful palette and Allen – still the movies’ best writer for actresses – sets the proceedings to a jumpy Ramsey Lewis jazz score that’s wickedly incongruous. Can we slow the music down long enough to remember not to want the murderer to get away with it?

In juxtaposition with the messiness and vibrancy of “Irrational Man,” Bill Condon’s “Mr. Holmes” feels as stuffy as a nose in wintertime. Here’s a movie for people with many shawls, the kind who come home, get into bed and turn on the heat blanket. It’s perfect to take your visiting aunt Bernice to see when you’re stuck with her for the day. She’ll love it.

Ian McKellen plays the nonagenarian Sherlock Holmes of 1947, who takes pains to correct fans’ misimpressions (he’s never worn a deerstalker and prefers a cigar to a pipe) but is grateful to Watson for at least giving his readers the wrong address (his office sat across Baker Street and down from 221B). Mr. Holmes lives on the farm now, his only companions the latest in a string of housekeepers (Laura Linney) and her kinder, keener son Roger (Milo Parker). He’s recently returned from a trip to Japan in search of the prickly ash that he believes will restore his memory of his last, unsolved case some 30 years earlier. 

Condon’s approach to Holmes is valetudinarian. We watch him lumber up a hillside, lay up, fall out of bed. Due respect to McKellen, but this is not compelling cinema. Neither, frankly, is that long-ago case, which culminates in a disproportionate act for which Holmes takes the blame but could not possibly have been expected to avert. Occasional flashbacks to Japan – or scenes in which a Japanese friend visits Holmes in England – are invariably signaled by the sort of gong-and-pan-flute music you remember from “Kung Fu.” There is much business about royal jelly, and dead bees, and a strange scene in which Holmes and Roger set fire to a hive of wasps.

A friend who enjoyed “Mr. Holmes” called it a “poignant study of aging and loneliness,” which would be fine if true but bears no resemblance to the mélange of mystery and light comedy promised in the trailers. At no point is the viewer asked to piece together clues; rather, Holmes periodically explains how someone or another gave themselves away, how their clothes signal their social status or a book jacket exposes a lie or a window studied too intently belies an intention to murder. It’s a movie as parlor trick. 

At one point, McKellen, his hair uncombed, bears a resemblance to Christopher Plummer, and I couldn’t help but think how much more alive Plummer might have made this character. McKellen offers little more than soft-spoken rectitude. The pursed lips and clipped delivery of Mrs. Munro are tailor-made for Linney – an actress to whom the words “warm and fuzzy” have never applied – and Parker has a distinctive (if vaguely creepy) screen presence as Holmes’ young confidant and collaborator.

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