Sleuthing With Offbeat Variations In 'Irrational Man' and 'Mr. Holmes' NPR film critic Bob Mondello reviews two crime movies — Irrational Man and Mr. Holmes — that have different philosophies on logic.
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Sleuthing With Offbeat Variations In 'Irrational Man' And 'Mr. Holmes'

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


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

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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.


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.


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.


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...


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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