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At Cannes, Woody Allen and Gus Van Sant get morbid, with mixed results

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11:30 a.m. “I couldn’t resist doing a crazy thing.” A slacker cousin to Crimes And Misdemeanors and Match Point, Woody Allen’s loose Dostoevsky riff Irrational Man (Grade: C+) stars Joaquin Phoenix as a philosophy professor who gets a new lease on life while planning and executing a perfect murder. It has problems familiar from much of the director’s later output—namely, it feels like a first-draft script performed by an undirected cast—and suffers more than usual from Allen’s inability to write grown-up intellectual dialogue, but almost gets by on narrative misdirection and Phoenix’s off-beat performance.

Sporting an impressive potbelly, Phoenix plays Professor Abe Lucas as a Brando hybrid, which kills Allen’s rhythm, but makes the character more credibly vulnerable and likable, setting him apart from the run-of-the-mill Allen impressionists. There are some okay one-liners (“Romantics think suicide is romantic,” “He’s done every drug; he hates them,” etc.), some typical Allen-isms (“making love”), and plenty of moments that bring to mind other Woody Allen movies, some of them better than others. And then there’s Phoenix’s Abe, mushing out phrases like, “The theoretical world of bullshit philosophy” and, “Uh, okay, Kierkegaard…” and generally disrupting his own movie. Every now and then, spoilsport Emma Stone shows up to verbalize and describe, presumably for the benefit of the blind.


Set in Rhode Island at fictional Braylin College, Irrational Man is about as authentic at depicting academia as Allen’s other films are at depicting life just about anywhere, including New York City. Phoenix and Stone both narrate the movie in first person; she plays the undergrad who becomes his best friend on campus, nursing a crush while he carries on an affair with a colleague (Parker Posey) who dreams of running off with him to Spain. This is Allen’s now-familiar world of death-obsessed men, bipolar women, and bullet-pointed intro philosophy, and it still has a whiff of charm.

1:30 p.m. The wind comes in strong from the sea, nearly blowing my bike off the road a few times. I keep the day light to try and get ahead for tomorrow, when I’ll be seeing new films by Nanni Moretti, Yorgos Lanthimos, Arnaud Desplechin, and Todd Haynes more or less back-to-back.


7:33 p.m. Fundamentally wrongheaded, Gus Van Sant’s Sea Of Trees (Grade: D) is sticky metaphysical goop: a combination survival yarn, domestic drama, and supernatural tearjerker about an American science adjunct (Matthew McConaughey) who travels to Japan’s Aokigahara forest to commit suicide, and there regains the will to live with the help of a magical salaryman (Ken Watanabe, miscast and largely unintelligible) with slashed wrists.

Barring a handful of unmotivated close-ups and diffusion-filter smears, Van Sant’s direction is indifferent and anonymous, often suggesting a lesser Nicholas Sparks adaptation with a muted palette of mud grays and forest greens. The script, by Chris Sparling (Buried), is one of those clicky machines of storytelling where everything fits together in the worst possible way. It features, among other things: a character who is implied to be a forest spirit or ghost, but then turns out to be the ghost of another character; a character who is revealed to have died, but not in the way the viewer is led to presume they had; a car crash that is incessantly foreshadowed for three solid minutes; portrayals of depression and academia that succeed only in making Irrational Man look better; and at least five false endings.

If any of this sounds like it might be fun—and admittedly, the ghost stuff does—be forewarned that it is not. Sea Of Trees is a mostly a slog, and not even the kind of formalist slog one would expect Van Sant to pull off. The press screening at the Debussy ends with a chorus of those famous Cannes boos, which usually happen at the end of good and ambitious films, but are here applied more or less accurately.

Not to say that Sea Of Trees is completely worthless: there’s a cool close-up of a ball of twine unfurling from the inside; Naomi Watts is typically good as the protagonist’s wife, an alcoholic realtor; and the premise of a survival story about two people who go into the wilderness to commit suicide and then struggle to get out when they decide that they don’t want to is neat, even though that’s not really what the movie is about.