Saturday, August 22, 2015

Irrational Man Movie Review: Woody Allen's 45th Feature

Correction 10 August 2016 - I originally labeled this as Allen's 50th feature. I think I pulled that number from a crude count of his IMDb credits which include TV work and one of the three vignettes in New York Stories. This was actually his 45th theatrically released feature film as a director, including What's Up, Tiger Lily?

Abe and Jill accidentally overhear a troubling story in a diner.
I’ve thought Woody Allen was washed up and done as a filmmaker for almost twenty years, but then every now and then he throws a curve ball of Vicky Christina Barcelona or Midnight in Paris, so I’m not about to make any big pronouncements, but Irrational Man is one that makes me desperately hope he doesn’t close out his career now lest the stink linger forever. That’s not really fair, I guess. No matter how bad an artist’s latter-day sins might be, the great stuff will always maintain a redemptive quality. Just look at Stevie Wonder.


Allen is treading in the same waters he’s been in before with this slight tale of Abe Lucas, a college philosophy professor played by Joaquin Phoenix. He’s suffering an existential crisis of despair until he happens upon an idea to take drastic action that puts his life back on track and helps him feel pleasure again. The act is murder. He overhears a sad story of a woman about to lose custody of her children to her no-good ex-husband, a man who mistreats his children, but whose lawyer is buddies with the judge. Abe is deeply troubled by the injustice of it and decides he’d be doing the world – the cosmos – a net good by offing the judge. Allen has already plumbed these depths in Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, but never better than in Crimes and Misdemeanors. The trouble he runs into is that the tone of Irrational Man never finds a comfortable level. It feels more like Cassandra’s Dream in that respect, where the emotions were overplayed and the severity of the crime never adds any weight or dimension. Think about how deeply troubled Martin Landau is by his decision in Crimes and Misdemeanors. There’s palpable drama there. By contrast Irrational Man remains light on its feet.

I suppose Allen is trying not to repeat himself too much. Fifty films into his career that must be a great challenge. So he peppers the story with secondary characters who are bright and bubbly, lacking in any real substance or development. They are foils, plot movers, and space fillers. With the exception of Abe and his student, Jill (the exquisite Emma Stone and the only actor in the film who seems to be taking it seriously) every other character with any dialogue is there to help the story hit its plot points. Whether it’s Parker Posey as Fran, a chemistry professor who strikes up an affair with Abe; the girl who happens upon him in the chemistry lab while he’s procuring cyanide; Jill’s friend who comes out of nowhere to pass along key information; or even Jill’s parents, who are just filler, everyone serves a singular purpose. And the number of coincidences and accidental connections that are made (including the overheard conversation about the woman’s troubles with the judge) are just lazy writing. It’s almost as if Allen simply gave up any creativity in plot machinations, although in retrospect that’s always been one of his weakest areas.

More troubling is Allen’s propensity for writing the same style of dialogue for everyone. It works for middle-aged, erudite intellectuals and academics like Abe, Fran, and Jill’s parents. To hear Jill and her boyfriend, Roy, talk about anything is to be embarrassed by how out of touch Allen is with how young people talk. This is the first time I’ve ever felt Allen’s fogeyish age come across in his writing.

There’s substance beneath the story that Allen is digging to unearth. But name-dropping Kant, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre isn’t enough. Or perhaps it’s too much. Jill spots a conveniently incriminating note in the margins of Abe’s copy of Crime and Punishment (I mean, come on!) that basically says, “I’m Martin Heidegger the Nazi and you’re Hannah Arendt, my student who is conflicted about my political leanings.

The story really loses a lot of steam as it moves into the third act – not that it had a great deal of momentum to begin with. It’s sort of ironic because that’s just about when Abe finds his renewed joie de vivre, which is precisely when he goes from being a one-dimensional depressive who sees no point to existence to being a one-dimensional character who finds purpose through action. A lot of Allen’s recent films have been over-stylized intellectual exercises or fantasies and parables. These have generally been the films I’ve enjoyed the least.

Phoenix almost makes it work. He’s playing the Allen alter-ego archetype, such as it is, but he truly makes it his own even if much of the time it seems like he’s wandered in from the set of some other movie or from the publicity stunt of self-expression when he appeared to go nuts several years ago. Stone is very good in a thankless role. Allen has a history of writing excellent female characters. This isn’t one of them. Jill is only a little more substantive than the supporting characters she and Abe are surrounded by. Her feelings for Abe develop out of nowhere and are established merely by her fascination with his brilliant and mysterious mind. It’s like Allen had an idea for an epiphany that is both morally repellent and the answer to his personal relationship with the universe and then didn’t bother to craft a compelling story around it.

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