What can one say about the arrival of a new Woody Allen film? Thanks to enough baggage to fill a dozen Pullmans, Allen’s work cannot stand on its own any more. Nowadays, everyone looks at his main characters and wonders if they’re extensions of the director and whether or not there’s anything untoward going on (in the film or in real life).
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Cinematographer: Darius Khondji
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Betsey Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Jamie Blackley, Tom Kemp,
Premiere: May 15, 2015 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 17, 2015
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Even if you can set this aside (and I guess good for you if you can), movies like Irrational Man—which is a bit less creepy than Magic in the Moonlight in its portrayal of male and female relationships—demand that you tolerate existing in Woody’s world for the length of a feature film. The story of a controversial philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) takes place on a small college campus in Rhode Island, one that hasn’t existed for two decades—all of the students and faculty are white, attractive, sport no tattoos, never check smartphones, don’t tweet, and gossip eagerly about the arrival of a philosophy professor (I take that back—this hasn’t happened in life, ever.) There’s his usual jazz score, stilted intellectual conversations that sound like bad theater, rambling discussions of Kant and Kierkegaard, and lots and lots of talk over lovely dinners.
This works (somewhat) in movies like Midnight in Paris or You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (which I still maintain is a criminally underrated masterpiece) when the story is sharp, the acting spot-on, and the dialogue both witty and propulsive, moving you through stories that are either hilarious or fascinating. Irrational Man, like most of Allen’s recent work, is lazy, misogynist, and ultimately dreadful.
Except for Joaquin Phoenix. For the first time, in perhaps the whole of Allen’s long career, has an actor so totally dominated one of the director’s movies. This is not a Joaquin Phoenix rendered as a stuttering stand-in for Allen (see every star of Allen’s recent films), but the Phoenix who was so riveting in Paul Thomas Anderson’s last two films. As the slippery professor Abe (as he’s referred to in the film), Phoenix shreds Allen’s lame dialogue, infusing this lost soul with a welcome pathos that is at once riveting and sympathetic. That he’s matched by Parker Posey’s brilliant turn as Professor Rita Richards in a small role, makes Irrational Man even more depressing for its lost potential.
The film opens with dual narration, from Lucas and student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone, who really needs to not hinge her career cart to Woody Allen). I don’t know why Allen continues to rely so heavily on narration. It was one thing when Allen himself was stuttering and bringing us up to date in Annie Hall, because that was an extension of his comedy routines; here the narration literally spells out what you’re watching. Abe is driving to campus in his 90s model Volvo, sucking whiskey from a flask (he’s troubled!) while the whole campus—students and faculty—talk breathlessly about how strange and troubled and brilliant he is, and the women are practically swooning.
Abe is dead bored, trying to summon up the passion he once had, drinking too much and fending off advances from both Posey’s Rita and Stone’s Jill. For some reason, it’s important to glue some backstory to these feelings of ennui—his wife left him, and his best friend, a journalist, was killed stepping on a landmine in Iraq. He’s in an existential funk.
Abe eventually falls into a flaccid affair with Rita, quite literally—he’s impotent, even with the aid of Cialis (yes, this is a conversation). In addition, he’s having long, drawn out discussions of philosophy with Jill, which causes tongues to wag, most notably by her boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley), who is understandably jealous. Jill does fall for Abe, who keeps her at arm’s length, and though both Jill and Rita are horribly drawn (inexplicably fawning over everything Abe does), we do see that Phoenix’s Abe is magnetic thanks to his bringing an air of mystery and inner torment to the role.
One day, while having breakfast, Abe and Jill overhear a woman complaining to three friends that a corrupt local judge is going to take her children from her and award custody to her deadbeat husband. The woman wishes the judge would die of cancer, but Abe, who knows that wishing is foolishness, sees an existential opportunity. Abe, who once worked in Darfur and New Orleans in the wake of their respective tragedies (and came away lacking any fulfillment) can really change a person’s like by killing the judge. A perfect crime, since no one will suspect him.
For about twenty minutes, Irrational Man kicks into high gear. With his decision, Abe becomes energized—he is sexually capable, has an appetite, is drinking less, writing poetry, and sleeping with the sexy and stable Jill, as opposed to the desperate and needy Rita. And of course, he’s plotting a murder, and this is actually quite fun to watch.
Nothing will go right, unfortunately for Abe and the audience. Abe’s decision should make for thought-provoking cinema: would you kill if you knew it would benefit humankind? Isn’t that what war is about? Why do we have to rely on leaders to make these decisions? Sadly, Abe doesn’t make those arguments, doesn’t agonize over the decision, which is also out of character for a guy who, up to this point, agonizes over everything. But this is lazy Allen, and so Irrational Man’s philosophical center doesn’t get the same treatment as, say, Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, or even Allen’s own Crimes and Misdemeanors or Match Point, all of which wrestled with essentially the same point (and so much better). Worse, once the murder is committed, Allen returns us to the petty world of campus, and of two women battling for Abe’s heart and soul, and this is just plain sad.
Once upon a time Allen was considered a great director of women, someone who wrote complex female characters and allowed brilliant actresses to inhabit these roles with total fearlessness. Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Annie Hall, Manhattan… the women challenged the men in every one of those films, stealing the limelight from their director (if he were in the movie). Here, Posey’s Rita only wants to “unblock” Abe with sex, and so does Jill. I was reminded, not favorably, with Barbara Hershey’s Lee in Hannah, who, in that movie, dated the much older Frederick (Max von Sydow) and was also having an affair with Michael Caine’s Eliot. She wasn’t a pushover, but a woman conflicted, challenging herself and both of those very strong men. Here, Jill does nothing but fawn over Abe, cherish his poetry and articles, and becomes disgusted by him but still capitulates, and by the end you’re just wishing she would go away.
Like Phoenix, Parker Posey works wonders with a lifeless character, and succeeds for the most part, though Irrational Man would have been improved eliminating Jill’s character and making Rita the main love interest. But again, we’re left wondering if Allen is capable of making movies with strong women—or relationships with people of the same age—again.
When mentioning that I was seeing Irrational Man, a friend told me “Allen should stop making movies,” and I don’t think she was referring to his troubles in the world at large. Allen’s work is not only trite, but utterly lazy as of late, out of date and seemingly incapable of interesting female characters or provocative ideas (and, yes, I’m including the Oscar-winning Blue Jasmine, as bad a film as he’s ever made.) In the end, Irrational Man works only to watch scenes between Phoenix and Posey, two great actors trapped in the myopic world of this lifeless director.