I just saw this. This very evening, at my local cinéma municipal (there was a line). Woody Allen has a film a year and that I see without fail—I’ve seen all 47 or whatever films he’s directed—usually in the week or two after it comes out (this one arrived in France ten days ago). I see them all because I am a lifelong Woody Allen fan (since age 16, to be precise) and have not joined the legions of cinesnobs who decreed in the ’90s that Woody Allen had gone downhill, that his films were ergo sans intérêt, and that they (the cinesnobs) would ergo no longer deign to see. Now of Woody A.’s 47 or whatever films since the mid ’60s, there are seven or eight that I disliked, and with a larger number—particularly among those from the early ’90s onward—that were watchable or not bad but of which I remembered little to nothing not long after seeing them. And he has not had an incontestable chef d’œuvre since the mid ’80s (‘Hannah and Her Sisters’). But I give the thumbs up to most of his films, including those of the past ten years, with three or four exceptions (okay, that’s 30-40% thumbs down or bof, but still).
As for this latest one, I will say categorically: I hated it. It may well be—in my book at least—Woody A.’s worst film ever. I started to dislike the pic from the opening scene, with the dislike increasing as the film progressed, and culminating in outright hate at the end. Storming out of the cinoche, I declared to the ticket-seller: “C’est le plus mauvais film de Woody Allen que j’ai jamais vu, et je les ai tous vu! C’était nul!” On the opening scene: Joaquin Phoenix’s character, a tortured but reputedly brilliant philosophy professor named Abe Lucas, who has a new job at a fictional liberal arts college in Newport RI, arrives in his Volvo (what else?), dressed like a slob, drinking whiskey (single malt Scotch) from a flask (which he does all day), and acts like a jerk (though which does not seem to rub any of his campus colleagues the wrong way). At least four clichés from the get go. Lucas may be an insufferable asshole and with a dad bod already in his early 40s—though he’s unmarried and not a dad—but nonetheless has a reputation as a Casanova and with women on campus inevitably swooning over him, notably Rita (Parker Posey), the wife of one of his colleagues—who hits on him and demands sex almost immediately—and earnest, ingénue student Jill (Emma Stone), who has a nice, devoted b.f., Roy (Jamie Blackley), but finds her philo prof just so brilliant and interesting and irresistible and is just dying to have an affair with him—even though he is, objectively speaking, a poseur and a creep. And, of course, she does, as does Rita. They both know about the other but, hey, pas de problème. And while b.f. Roy is au courant, he doesn’t raise a stink for the longest time. Right.
Problem 1 with the film: The campus affairs/sex part is bullshit. As I’ve written before (go here and to the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs) this is a fantasy of middle-aged male screenwriters—and, en l’occurrence, an octogenarian film director toujours porté sur la chose—who have never been university professors. Problem 2: Professor Lucas is supposed to be brilliant but his class lectures, as depicted in the film, are a café de commerce. Early on he tells his students that most philosophy is bullshit; to listen to him throughout is confirmation. When it comes to philo talk, Woody Allen cannot rival Eric Rohmer (cf. the discussion of Pascal’s Wager in ‘Ma nuit chez Maud’). Moreover, Lucas says at one point that he’s writing a book on Heidegger and “fascism” (no, it would be “Nazism”) and, at another, he mispronounces Husserl’s name. Problem 3: The whole depiction of small, Northeastern liberal arts college life is way off. The dialogues are insipid and contrived, the campus situations implausible, and the students too preppy. It rings false. Or, to put it another way, it is false. And Emma Stone, who is 26 and looks it, is too old to be playing an undergraduate. She’s a fine actress but wasn’t right for this role. And then there’s Lucas deciding to suddenly quit his (presumably tenured) position and move to Europe to teach (city, country, or university not specified) and which raises no eyebrows at the college (yeah, sure, as if a philosophy professor at a liberal arts college can, job-wise, write his own ticket; also, if Lucas were up there with, say, Slavoj Žižek or Alain Badiou, he wouldn’t be at some little college to begin with). Problem 4: The pic’s central plot, if one wants to call it that, of Lucas committing what he thinks is the perfect crime and that suddenly enables his tortured soul to find meaning in life—and for him to finally get it up and fuck with abandon—and that he explains via his bullshit philosophy, is grotesque and perverse. Whatever Woody A. was trying to say here—about life, moral choices, or whatever—just rubbed me the wrong way. At the end of the film, I was disgusted. Point barre.
French reviews of the film are good overall (3.7/3.6 on Allociné), which is not surprising, though US ones are mixed (53 on Metacritic). I don’t read reviews of Woody Allen films—and haven’t of this one—though am quite sure the negative US ones are more on the mark. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.
UPDATE: I decided to read a few reviews of the pic on Metacritic. The one by the NY Post’s Lou Lumenick, who calls it “the worst movie of [Woody Allen’s] career,” nails it (though I differ with Lumenick on Woody A.’s ‘Magic in the Moonlight’, which I liked).