I don’t think this will be the last film 79- year old Woody Allen will make, but if its is, he’s chosen to go out pitiless and ugly, as Robert Bresson did in L’Argent. A grim affair, the only thing I found amusing about it was seeing how many times he placed the actors in scenic Newport locations, even for one or two lines of dialogue, in order to get all of those cost-saving perks from the city.
His script editor – himself – is as strict as ever. Not one screen moment, not a word, extends a scene past its dramatic function. We follow characters whose lives are meant to embody the living concepts in his by-now familiar philosophy, but it still holds us because he casts his actors so perfectly. They can blithely discuss the meaning of the universe while ordering from a restaurant menu, but they are so particularized that we never hear the author’s voice, only their own.
His theme is familiar, but presented starkly, without the comic trappings he’s used before. But his conclusion is the same: the existence of genuine goodness in this world is as mysterious and unexplained as the existence of evil. At any time, choosing one over the other may be no more than a random act. There is an additional warning, however: it is dangerous to hold back from life because you’re waiting for the exact opportunity to discover your true nature, which will guide you for the future. The danger is, of course, that your “true nature” may be something you – and the rest of the world – will wish had stayed hidden.
But the bigger story, for me, is the astonishing Emma Stone. As a college student infatuated with her philosophy professor, played by Joachim Phoenix, she makes her character’s agonizing conversion to disillusionment, and eventual horror, the strongest element in the film. She seems to instinctively avoid falseness and vanity in her performance, which is remarkable in someone so young. Allen could not have chosen someone more sympathetic to his vision.