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

<em>Irrational Man </em>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.

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.

Ian McKellen comes to the role of Sherlock Holmes late, but with his customary elegance.
Giles Keyte / Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Ian McKellen comes to the role of Sherlock Holmes late, but with his customary elegance.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.