Thursday, August 6, 2015

Incoherent Film: Woody Allen’s Irrational Man

Emma Stone and Jaoquin Phoenix in Woody Allen's Irrational Man.

What to make of Woody Allen’s latest movie Irrational Man? Not much, actually. The drama about jaded, lacklustre university professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who only comes to emotional life when he plots to kill a stranger mines much of the same territory, concerning morality and the meaning of justice versus injustice, that Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) did. It also delves into the same mystery tropes, such as how to best commit the perfect murder that was the subject of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and Match Point (2005). Not much new here, then, other than the film’s Newport, Rhode Island setting and, believe it or not, a somewhat more modern soundtrack. (The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s 60s tracks used in the movie, "Wade in the Water" and "The In Crowd” are poppier than Allen’s usual classical/jazz standards, but also overused here.) There’s also the welcome presence of Emma Stone, who also starred in Allen’s last movie, Magic in the Moonlight (2014). As Jill Pollard, Lucas’s student who falls hard for him and becomes reluctantly involved in his immoral machinations, she pretty much steals the movie, except there’s so little to Irrational Man that hers is really not much of an accomplishment.

With the notable exceptions of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Blue Jasmine (2013), Allen hasn’t done much of interest for decades now and at first Irrational Man seems like something fresher from him. Its academic setting, philosophical ruminations (Abe teaches philosophy to small, elite classes at a mini-Ivy league educational institution), and its initial sunny tone, minus any real angst, seems promising. But the movie soon turns sour, first when gloomy Abe shows up – Phoenix isn’t bad in the movie but his mopey character isn’t all that appealing or interesting either, though in his later upbeat mode he is charming and funny – and especially when Parker Posey appears on the scene. I haven’t seen much of this wonderful effervescent actress of late, except for a nice brief turn as Eli Gold’s ex-wife on The Good Wife, so I was excited to see her in a major movie. What Allen does to her in Irrational Man, however, is shameful. As Rita, Abe’s fellow married teacher who is prone to affairs with many of the new professors, including Abe, Parker is depicted as an uncomfortably needy, almost physically ugly woman, who could and should have been given her fair due as a lonely person who sees Abe, who has some small measure of fame behind him, as an opening to something she can’t get out of her own intellectually stagnant and mostly sexless marriage. (Allen’s screenplay suggests this, but doesn’t really believe it.) But Allen wants to stack the deck against Rita so we will automatically root for Jill to win out as Abe’s lover. That’s also why Jill’s boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley) is so bland. You don’t for a second believe someone as vivacious as Jill would settle for such a milquetoast.

Parker Posey in Irrational Man.
That leaves Stone to carry the film’s emotional weight, such as it is. She pulls as much out of the thinly written Jill as she can and within the movie’s unimaginative parameters is at least consistent. But the 21st Century’s answer to Lauren Bacall deserves much better; she ought to be getting roles worthy of the great Barbara Stanwyck, the tough/sexy actress she also evokes but Irrational Man’s part is not nearly of that calibre. She’s appealing enough in the movie, but you can see how the role of Jill could have been so much more. She doesn’t even have enough chemistry with Phoenix and the age difference between them – her 26 years to his 40 – is neither as creepy as the bigger age gap in so many Allen films nor as implausible (many young students get involved with their teachers.) Yet their on screen relationship falters pretty fast and even turns unnecessarily nasty.

So does the movie, which pretty quickly runs out of steam and ideas, ending on a banal note and offering a resolution which simply reeks of cheap irony. (After so many years of moviemaking and nearly 50 movies, Allen ought to know better.) He’s torn between observing that Abe’s sinister plan rejuvenates him and also condemning of said plan, which makes for a somewhat muddled metaphor of a movie since the intended victim, on some level, is perceived as possibly deserving of death. (Crimes and Misdemeanors, by comparison, was quite clear on the moral boundaries crossed by murder, making for a memorably tragic and despairing conclusion.) Without spoiling the film I can state that Abe could have ensured that ‘justice’ would have more easily been served by killing a certain other person instead. Irrational Man isn’t Allen’s worst film, not by a long shot, but it’s certainly one of his most incoherent and sloppily laid out ones, including in his seemingly random and not particularly enticing use of narration, split between Abe and (mostly) Jill. I suspect a lovely location, the presence of the beautiful Stone and a movie which (supposedly) grapples with the important ideas of life is why Allen chose to make this movie. He may, thus, think it’s a big deal – but, in the end, it’s really pretty small potatoes.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

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