Film Views: “Irrational Man” and “Mr. Holmes

“Mission Impossible”…”Fantastic Four”…the reboot of “National Lampoon’s Vacation”…this is generally what summer is about at the local cineplex — or at least it is this week. When the majority of weekly film goers are whites between 18-39 — with women going to the movies slightly more than men (52% Female, 48% Male) — those who buy the ticket are the ones for whom films are made. Indeed, according to the Motion Pictures Association of America’s own stats, it seems those action-adventure/comic book movies are extremely popular with the movie audience:

Among the top five grossing films in 2014, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Solider, The Lego Movie and Transformers: Age of Extinction attracted majority male audiences, while The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 showed the strongest female attendance of the top 5 films, with 57% of box office revenue coming from women. Transformers Age of Extinction drew the most ethnically diverse audience, earning 38% its box office from Caucasian audiences, 22% from African-American audiences, 26% from Hispanic audiences, and 14% from the Asian/Other audience group.

So in a sea of films made mostly for the whites between the age of 18-39, how do films like “Irrational Man” and “Mr. Holmes” get the green light? Well, film studio head honchos see safe bets but know that you can’t place all your chips on red. There’s only so much of the action-adventure pie to slice. No, you have to dig a little deeper and see other “markets” to be served. And if a demographic starts buying tickets for this or that “over 40” sleeper film, then you get things like this snippet from the same MPAA report:

In 2014 the share of tickets sold to 40-49 and 50-59 year olds were at all time highs, while the share of tickets sold to 60+ year olds (13%) was at its highest level since 2011.

Any film producer reading these stats, is going to say “Hmm…let’s start looking at the gray-haired-themed screenplays ’cause there’s gold in them thar hills.” And now you see why in a summer awash in action-adventure films that come out year after year, you get “Irrational Man” and “Mr. Holmes” showing up on the theater marquee.

"Irrational Man (film) poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Irrational_Man_(film)_poster.jpg#/media/File:Irrational_Man_(film)_poster.jpg
“Irrational Man (film) poster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
Woody Allen has been a consistent filmmaker who has, for the better part of his career, put out a film every year or so. Sometimes he has a big hit (i.e., “Midnight in Paris” or “Bullets Over Broadway”) and sometimes he has those that miss the mark (i.e, “Shadows and Fog” or “Magic in the Moonlight”). Since Allen keeps his film budgets small (many of the actors working for union scale wages just to have a Woody Allen film on their resume), he can get money for his projects because while he’s not necessarily a safe bet, he’s consistent enough that his fans show up to the theater to see what he’s created.

With “Irrational Man” Woody Allen has created one of his most ethically challenging movies in a long time. In the past, Allen (or his stand-ins) have waxed neurotic about the meaning of life, if there’s a God, death, and how people lose their moral core and devolve into evil (if you’ve been watching Allen’s movies for decades, the theme of fascism, Hitler, and right- wing politics comes up often). In “Irrational Man” Allen doesn’t need to speculate anymore. Instead, he’s created a character who embodies many of the same questions and anxieties he’s played on screen — except this time, it’s largely devoid of comedy.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a passionless, sexually impotent, heavy-drinking Philosophy professor who, somehow, lands a teaching gig at a small liberal arts college in Rhode Island. Lucas has a reputation has a good scholar, a man who lived his left-wing politics, but is also distant and distracted with his colleagues. Abe lectures on ethics in philosophy and prods his students into discussing the difficulty in wrestling with ethical issues. One of Abe’s students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) is a smart and insightful student who takes to Abe. The two spend a lot of time together as friends — though Jill is falling in love with him. Abe, because he’s so distant and detached, is also alluring to some of the faculty women his age — most notably, Rita (Parker Posey). Abe and Rita attempt to have an affair, but Abe can’t due to his impotence.

It’s not until Abe and Jill overhear a conversation in a diner about a woman going through a divorce, does Abe’s lack of passion for life take a turn.  The woman explains to her friends that the judge in her case is being unfair to her because he’s basically in the pocket of the ex-husband.  The legal fees alone are bankrupting her and threaten to keep her from her children. She wishes the judge would get cancer and die.  After hearing this tale of woe, Abe is so taken by her troubles (remember, he’s eavesdropping, and the woman and her companions don’t know he’s listening in) that he makes intricate plans to kill the judge and rid this woman of this morally bankrupt man who is keeping her in such misery — simply because he has the power to do so.

The rest of the film plays out in such a way that it shows Abe finding a new zest for life, until the aftermath of his ethical murder starts to crumble.  I won’t reveal much more than that, but the narrative plays out in ways that’s unexpected and thrilling to watch.

The cast is really fantastic with Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone turning in very strong performances, and Allen has written a film that really requires the viewer to pay attention to the moral conundrums that pop up throughout the story. “Irrational Man” is not one of Woody Allen’s misses, but it’s not quite a hit, either. Rather, it’s one of his more assured meditations on ethics he’s ever made.

"Mr. Holmes poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mr._Holmes_poster.jpg#/media/File:Mr._Holmes_poster.jpg
“Mr. Holmes poster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
Ian McKellen brings nuance, heft and a lot of vulnerability to the role of a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes. You may not be a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries, but you don’t have to be to enjoy this novel-like tale of a case that has troubled Holmes in his old age. His partner, John Watson and brother Mycroft have long since died, and Sherlock has retired to Sussex to live out his golden years as a bee keeper. His housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) live with Holmes and mostly cook and clean the house. At the outset, Sherlock has returned from Japan with a jelly made from prickly ash that Holmes believes will help him with his fading memory. He takes a liking to Roger and over the course of the film becomes a kind of father figure to him. Roger’s curiosity of Holmes’ stories sparks Sherlock to start writing his version of the case Watson wrote up — a case that haunts Holmes with regret.

We get to see Holmes struggle with his memory, his physical abilities, and his longing to come to terms with aspects of the case that haunt him. I won’t give away the details of the story, but it’s safe to say that harboring regret throughout your life can be emotionally crippling. The conflicts of the past and present Holmes tries to resolve are frustrating because the holes in his memories impair his abilities to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

However, when Holmes is lucid, he proves to be just as observant as he was in his younger years, and it’s that lucidity that comes back in drips and drabs that eventually help him understand why Watson told the story the way he did, and why the case has been so emotionally painful to Holmes.

Ian McKellen is wonderful in the role. Laura Linney is good, but Milo Parker is quite the find. Parker is probably all of 11 or 12-years-old, but he can hold his own against both McKellen and Linney in the film — not an easy thing to do when you share scenes with such seasoned actors. However, good acting doesn’t always make for a good film. Thankfully, “Mr. Holmes” is based on the popular and critically acclaimed novel A Slight Trick of the Mind (2005), and like most good novels, the story is nicely layered in such a way that it doesn’t tip its hand early on so the last two acts become predictable. So, get thee to the movies to see “Mr. Holmes” and “Irrational Man” if you crave thought-provoking films that’ll have you talking about them long after the credits roll.