Sleuthing With Offbeat Variations In 'Irrational Man' And 'Mr. Holmes'

Sleuthing With Offbeat Variations In 'Irrational Man' And 'Mr. Holmes'

10:03pm Jul 20, 2015
Irrational Man is a Hitchcock-style mystery wrapped in a Woody Allen romance.
Irrational Man is a Hitchcock-style mystery wrapped in a Woody Allen romance.
Sabrina Lantos / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
  • Irrational Man is a Hitchcock-style mystery wrapped in a Woody Allen romance.

    Irrational Man is a Hitchcock-style mystery wrapped in a Woody Allen romance.

    Sabrina Lantos / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

  • Ian McKellen comes to the role of Sherlock Holmes late, but with his customary elegance.

    Ian McKellen comes to the role of Sherlock Holmes late, but with his customary elegance.

    Giles Keyte / Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

I'm gonna guess that in pitch meetings, and maybe even in script form, Woody Allen's Irrational Man and Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes looked a lot like police procedurals.

Happily their directors didn't leave them on the page, so they've warped into something a little different: A mystery of memory and the aging mind in the case of Mr. Holmes, a romance in the Hitchcock tradition for Irrational Man.

The latter is territory Allen has traipsed through before, of course — most recently in Match Point, but also in earlier quasi-homages to the Master of Suspense. If neurotics are Woody Allen's area of expertise, then the visiting professor who arrives at a small New England college in Irrational Man is an ideal title character. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, Abe is depressed, alcoholic, sexually dysfunctional, aimless, bored — a sad-sack intellectual stuck in a well-worn rut — and consequently in a Woody Allen film, absolute catnip for a hot-to-trot academic colleague played by Parker Posey.

He's no sooner set foot on campus than she's making a play for him, accosting him at faculty parties, bringing him scotch on a rainy evening, and begging him not to send her home to her hubby without sleeping with her first.

"You're blocked," she purrs. "I'm going to unblock you."

Unless, that is, he's too distracted by a student who's been buzzing around him. Abe says no, and means it. He's keeping his relationship with student Jill (Emma Stone) platonic, though he is spending a lot of time in her presence. She's acing his class in "Ethical Strategies," and also joining him for long philosophical chats about existentialism. Which is what they're up to at a diner when she overhears a conversation in the next booth. He moves around to her side to listen, and in a matter of seconds, gains a sense of purpose.

I shouldn't elaborate on what they've overheard, except to say it moves him to take action that I, um, also shouldn't elaborate on. Action that reinvigorates him (and has the pleasant side-effect of turning him into a caveman in the bedroom), but that would likely distress his "Ethical Strategies" students.

Woody Allen's writing is as sharp as his leading character's morality is fuzzy. And if the director is revisiting territory from Crimes and Misdemeanors in spots, he's working some decently amusing variations here.

Variations set to the Ramsey Lewis Trio — "The In Crowd" is the film's unifying theme — and to a distinctly Hitchcockian vibe. Purists may complain about lapses in logic. But then, with a title like Irrational Man, you could say they've been forewarned.

Lapses in logic would not be appropriate in Mr. Holmes, the story of an aging Sherlock (Ian McKellen). It's lapses in memory that plague him. Now in his 90s, living in a country house with beehives, a housekeeper (Laura Linney), and her precocious son Roger (Milo Parker), Sherlock is both proud of, and struggling to remember, his glory days.

Watson, he tells Roger, who admires him to the point of hero-worship, nearly always exaggerated and simplified when he wrote the stories that made them both famous. Now, the aging sleuth wants to write his own version of his final case — the case that caused him to give up his profession for good. He knows the broad outlines, but much to his distress, can no longer call to mind the details.

Adding to his distress, though he doesn't let on, is the fact that the housekeeper and her son may be moving on. When she tells him she's thinking of moving to a town where her sister lives, his reaction is hushed.

"You have a sister," he repeats. "I'd not have thought it."

And that's the problem. His powers of deduction are fading as quickly as his memory, leaving him haunted by the feeling that he got something wrong that still needs to be put right.

Director Bill Condon won an Oscar when last he worked with McKellen on Gods And Monsters — also the tale of an elderly celeb and a young protégé . Here, the director navigates gracefully among plot threads and time periods. As does his star, who looks unnervingly enfeebled in the film's present, but vigorous in flashbacks to postwar London and a blackened, blistered Hiroshima.

Co-screenwriter Mitch Cullin had a hand in adapting his own novel — A Slight Trick of the Mind — and found a new, much sunnier way for Holmes to learn the limits of logic, and the value of fiction. That means even those who've read the book can be startled by what happens in Mr. Holmes, while they're being moved by McKellen in a role he's come to late, but with his customary elegance.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

To the movie theater now, with two new films that could've been just police procedurals, but aren't, thanks to their directors. Critic Bob Mondello says Bill Condon's "Mr. Holmes" is a mystery of memory, while Woody Allen's "Irrational Man" takes the form of a romance.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: If neurotics are Woody Allen's area of expertise, then the visiting professor who arrives at a small New England college in "Irrational Man" is an ideal title character. Abe, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is depressed, alcoholic, sexually dysfunctional. He's a sad-sack intellectual stuck in a well-worn rut, which, for some reason, makes him catnip for a hot-to-trot academic colleague played by Parker Posey.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IRRATIONAL MAN")

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Abe) I can't write 'cause I can't breathe.

PARKER POSEY: (As Rita) What would get you breathing again?

PHOENIX: (As Abe) I - you know - I don't - the will to breathe - inspiration.

POSEY: (As Rita) You need a muse.

PHOENIX: (As Abe) I've never needed a muse before.

POSEY: (As Rita) I hope you're not going to send me back out into the rain without sleeping with me.

PHOENIX: (As Abe) I'm trying to write.

POSEY: (As Rita) You're blocked. I'm going to unblock you. Or are you becoming infatuated with that student you spend so much time with?

MONDELLO: Actually, Abe's keeping that relationship platonic. Student Emma Stone is acing his class in ethical strategies and also joining him for long, philosophical chats about existentialism at a diner, which is where they are when she overhears a conversation in the next booth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IRRATIONAL MAN")

EMMA STONE: (As Jill) Are you aware of what's going on at this table?

MONDELLO: He moves around to her side to listen and gains a sense of purpose.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IRRATIONAL MAN")

PHOENIX: (As Abe) It was at this moment that my life came together.

MONDELLO: I shouldn't elaborate on what he's overheard, except to say it moves him to take action that I also shouldn't elaborate on - action that has a bonus...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IRRATIONAL MAN")

POSEY: (As Rita) Christ, you're like a caveman.

MONDELLO: ...But that would likely distress his ethical strategies students. Woody Allen's writing is as sharp as his leading character's morality is fuzzy. And if the director is revisiting territory from "Crimes And Misdemeanors," he's working some decently amusing variations here - variations set to the Ramsey Lewis Trio and to a Hitchcockian vibe. Purists may complain about lapses in logic, but then, with a title like "Irrational Man," you could say they've been forewarned.

Lapses in logic would not be appropriate in "Mr. Holmes," the story of an aging Sherlock played by Ian McKellen. It's lapses in memory that plague him, now in his 90s, living in a country house with beehives, a housekeeper and her precocious son and remembering his glory days.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. HOLMES")

IAN MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) Watson had married, and I was alone. In fact, it was on the very day he left Baker Street that the case which was to be my last began to unfold.

MONDELLO: Unfold in ways that the master detective can no longer call to mind, much to his distress. Also to his distress, though he doesn't let on, the housekeeper and her son may be moving on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. HOLMES")

LAURA LINNEY: (As Mrs. Munro) I know Roger's been a help to you. He's a good boy. He's always been clever. His dad and I weren't the sort to know the things a boy like Roger takes interest in.

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) Exceptional children are often the product of unremarkable parents.

MONDELLO: Holmes is ever the essence of tact.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. HOLMES")

LINNEY: (As Mrs. Munro) I've got a sister. She lives in Portsmouth. A couple of her acquaintances are opening a private hotel there, say they're willing to take Roger and me on.

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) You have a sister? Never would've thought it.

MONDELLO: And that's the problem - his powers of deduction are fading as quickly as his memory, leaving him haunted by the feeling that he got something wrong that still needs to be put right, as he confides to 10-year-old Roger.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. HOLMES")

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) The case was my last, and it was why I left the profession and came down here, retired to my bees. So I've decided to get it right before I die.

MILO PARKER: (As Roger) You're not going to die.

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes) I'm 93.

PARKER: (As Roger) I had a great-uncle who lived to be 102.

MCKELLEN: Well, then that seals my fate. What are the odds that you would know two men who would live that long?

PARKER: (As Roger) Well, I didn't actually know him.

MCKELLEN: (As Sherlock Holmes, laughter).

MONDELLO: Director Bill Condon won an Oscar when he last worked with McKellen, on "Gods And Monsters," also the tale of an elderly celeb and a young protege. Here, the director navigates gracefully among plot threads and time periods, as does his star, who looks unnervingly enfeebled in the film's present but vigorous in flashbacks to postwar London and a blackened, blistered Hiroshima. Co-screenwriter Mitch Cullin had a hand in adapting his own novel, "A Slight Trick Of The Mind," and found a new way for Holmes to learn the limits of logic and the value of fiction. That means even those who've read the book can be startled by what happens in "Mr. Holmes," while they're being moved by McKellen in a role he's come to late but with his customary elegance. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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