Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Abe), Emma Stone (Jill), Parker Posey (Rita), Jamie Blackley (Roy), Betsy Aidem (Jill's Mother), Ethan Phillips (Jill's Father), Sophie von Haselberg (April), Tom Kemp (Judge Spangler).
If you’ve read any interviews with Woody Allen, you know that the man makes films out of a preference for routine, rather than some driving passion. He’s essentially been making a film a year, every year, since the late 1960s, and his latest Irrational Man is his 47th film (that includes a third of the omnibus film New York Stories and the TV movie Don’t Drink the Water). You can certainly tell that Woody’s heart isn’t in every one of his movies – especially when you watch something like Irrational Man. The film is lazily written by Allen – he is basically doing his umpteenth variation of what may just be his best film, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and the “morality or murder”. The characters are classical Allen archetypes, and the dialogue often seems like self-parody, not to mention that the movie is overly repetitive, and other than a few moments where the characters look at their cellphones or reference “the computer” could have been written by Allen back in the 1970s. Basically, Irrational Man is another one of Allen’s “late period” disappointments (his early period stretched from 1966’s What’s Up Tiger, Lily to 1975’s Love and Death, his prime between 1977’s Annie Hall and 1997’s Deconstructing Harry, and we’ve been in this late period ever since). This period has produced some gems – Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Match Point (2005) – another Crimes and Misdemeanors Variation – Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2007), Midnight in Paris (2010), Blue Jasmine (2013) – and any number of films that are, at the very least, entertaining. And to be fair, Irrational Man is not the nadir of Allen’s career – its way better than The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Scoop, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger or To Rome with Love, and is at least slightly better than last year’s Magic in the Moonlight. Still, if it feels like Allen is going through the motions with this film, well, that’s because that is precisely what Allen is doing.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas – the new philosophy professor at a small, liberal East Coast University, who mopes, drinks and says “very dark things”, and seems to have everyone fooled into thinking that he’s a deep, complicated man – when really, he’s just an asshole. It isn’t long before not one, but two women have fallen for Abe Lucas (and yes, almost every time his name is spoken, it’s said as Abe Lucas, and not just Abe). There’s the age appropriate Rita (Parker Posey), another professor, who is married, but has had many affairs, and sets her sites on Abe Lucas as her latest conquest. Then there’s the very much age inappropriate Jill (Emma Stone), one of his students, who follows Abe around like a lost puppy dog, while he “nobly” refuses to sleep with her, until, of course, he doesn’t. It’s while he is out with Jill, that they overhear a woman telling a sob story about the family court judge who is going to screw her over – when Abe Lucas gets an idea. Abe Lucas will kill the family court judge – making the world a slightly better place. After all, he’s tried to “do the right thing”, volunteering in Darfur and New Orleans, and other places and nothing helped. But murder? Perhaps that will.
This is all pretty standard Woody Allen stuff – and to be fair, some of it works. There is no way the three major characters should feel real or original, and they don’t, but the three actors do a hell of job with them anyway. Parker Posey is playing the “older”, slightly desperate and pathetic woman – ruining her marriage, drinking constantly, and while you could certainly find this character offensive (because, well, it is), Posey reminds the audience just how terrific she can be given a juicy role. This is her first movie with Allen – and not the last (she’s been announced for his next film) – so let’s hope he gives her the juicy role she has deserved for years now. Phoenix is playing what could be described as the Woody surrogate here – the neurotic, suicidal, pretentious intellectual, but like the best Woody surrogates, he doesn’t attempt an impression here – but takes Abe Lucas is an more interesting way. Phoenix is pudgy in the film, and morose, until he hits upon his plan when he becomes much happier. Phoenix, who is one of the best actors working right now, does way more to make this asshole into a believable character than Allen does – and it almost works. Best of all is Stone – who overcomes the limitations of the role (that like Posey’s, you could easily describe as offensive), delivering a wonderfully comic performance, that gives Jill far more intelligence and insight that appears to have been there in the screenplay. Stone was good in Magic in the Moonlight as well last year – so that makes two Allen movies she has saved from being awful in two years. Let’s hope that at the very least, Allen gives her a role as good as Scarlett Johansson’s in Match Point (or hell, even Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where Johansson was perhaps the least interesting major character) at some point.
Allen still knows how to direct – and he does a better job there than on the screenplay. I like the look and feel of the college campus, engulfed in green throughout the film, and there are a few set pieces that work quite well. You can see that there is still talent in Allen. Which is what makes a film like Irrational Man so frustrating. Even though this is the umpteenth version of Crimes and Misdemeanors he has made – that storyline can still work (as Match Point and the grossly underrated Cassandra’s Dream prove). But in order for it to work, Allen needs to give a shit, and actually try. The fact that Irrational Man is as good as it is – and it is, overall fairly mediocre – is a testament to Allen’s undeniable skill. The fact that it’s not any better is a testament to his laziness.