Despite dealing with heavy sounding concepts like existentialism, the meaning of life and moral dilemmas as opposed to the comic observation of human follies and weaknesses in many of his earlier films, this is not without entertainment – or indeed human folly. It is in some ways something of an American take on the picture of university characters and carry ons drawn in the comic novels about academic life by British writers Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge.
Phoenix plays Abe, a disenchanted philosophy professor who can no longer find any meaning and joy in life. He takes a summer teaching appointment at a small town college, where despite his gloomy and taciturn manner and heavy drinking habit, he soon attracts the attention of two attractive women. They are Rita (Posey), who nurses romantic delusions about him rescuing her from her boring marriage and whisking her off to a new life in Spain; and his star student Jill (Stone), who despite having a steady boyfriend (Blackley), is fascinated by Abe’s tortured soul and develops a crush on him. Abe though resists her romantic advances, instead making her his best friend.
Things change however when Abe and Jill overhear a conversation in a restaurant, where a mother is complaining about the injustice of the fact that she is about to have her children taken away in a court action presided over by a corrupt judge, who is in cahoots with her ex-husband. Suddenly Abe has a sense of purpose and meaning to his life. He will commit the perfect, apparently motiveless crime, murder the judge and make the world a better place. And his personal life and indeed the film itself both perk up, as he starts affairs with both Jill and Rita while planning his existential murder.
Phoenix, now on the cusp of middle age, is well cast as the disenchanted Abe, with strong support from the rest of the cast, particularly the women – Stone, bright, curious and naïve as Jill, who is eventually faced with what might be described an as existential moral dilemma herself and Posey, giving a delightfully daft performance in a rather frustratingly small role.
The plot is admittedly a somewhat artificial exercise, while the dialogue, which includes a the generous amount of voice over narration from Abe and Jill, is literate and stylised with frequent intellectual references to writers such as Dostoevsky, Kant and Sartre, reflecting the film’s more serious intent and making the film a bit heavy going in places. But there is a dry, ironic humour to the proceedings which is very entertaining. One scene in particular, where Abe, Jill and Jill’s parents speculate over who the murderer can be, is a highlight, while the resolution of the story is blackly comic, abrupt but satisfying.
Review by Carol Allen