Watching a Woody Allen movie these days is akin to watching a great athlete in the twilight of his career.
Every now and then you get to see a vintage performance, a reminder of the self-assured mastery and skill that once made this guy the greatest in the world. Every now and then he’ll go long stretches where he’s on top of his game and looking like the champion of old—filling up the stat sheet and wowing you with his ability to stay with the other players—only to falter on a few key shots or run out of gas at the end. And every now and then he throws up a complete brick, nearly missing the mark entirely and leaving you shaking your head and hoping he has what it takes to make on last run at a championship.
Unfortunately, despite a solid effort by his actors and some interesting moments here and there, Allen’s latest annual offering, Irrational Man, is more brick than anything else. It looks good coming off his fingertips, arcs encouragingly toward the basket, but ultimately clanks awkwardly off the rim and way, way out of bounds.
The Irrational Man at the core of the movie is Abe Lucas, a brilliant but troubled philosophy professor just beginning a new job at Braylin College, a fictional school in the northeast where the undergrads all talk like 40-year-old liberal elites and the co-eds have never heard of “Russian Roulette”. We know that Abe is brilliant but troubled because character after character carefully explains to us again and again and again and again and again—ad nauseam—that he is brilliant but troubled. Abe, floundering in the throes of a serious existential crisis, strikes up a friendship with one of his top students, Jill, who quickly falls for him. We know that she has fallen for him because character after character carefully explains to us again and again and again and again and again—ad nauseam—that she has fallen for him.
In case you’re not getting it on your own and need me to explain it to you: the worst flaw in Irrational Man is that Allen’s script constantly assumes that the audience just isn’t getting it and needs everything explained to them, over and over and over again. Jill has the same conversation with her boyfriend about her relationship with Abe at least three times. When the film pivots suddenly in its second half and there is a crime to be solved, one character’s theory is repeated no less than four times by various characters. And on and on. The repetition becomes so striking that it begins to appear almost strategic, but it ultimately just derails the movie’s momentum and leaves the viewer somewhat bored in slogging through the same material over and over again.
During one of their pseudo-dates, Abe and Jill find themselves at a diner, where they overhear a stranger’s heartbreaking story about how she is about to lose her children in a divorce. In that moment, Abe makes a life-altering decision, which propels Irrational Man in an unexpected–though more interesting–direction and gives meaning and purpose to his life.
Suddenly the cloud over Abe lifts. He begins to enjoy life again. He writes, he lusts, and he loves.
“What happened to the philosophy professor?” marvels a fellow faculty member with whom Abe is having an affair. “Christ, you were like a caveman!”
It’s a compliment.
From there, Irrational Man actually starts to pick up some steam. Abe sets his course, plots and plans, and acts—he says—for the first time in his life.
Woody Allen has written some beautiful dialogue in his career, brought to life some lively characters, and laced his screenplays with delicate irony, razor-sharp wit, and even instances of true suspense. Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Match Point are just three illustrations of what has evolved into a monumental canon of excellent films that succeed in one or more of those areas.
But where Irrational Man actually succeeds has little to do with Allen’s direct contribution, but rather comes from the entirely game performances of the three leads: Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in the two top roles, and Parker Posey as Abe’s colleague and lover, Rita. All three transcend the material and develop interesting, compelling characters that live and breathe and manage to keep us interested despite it all. Stone and Posey, in particular, do far more with their roles than one might expect, given what they have to work with. To a large extent, they are drawn as caricatures—as is Abe, for that matter—but their interpretation of their dialogue and ability to fill the empty spaces with empathy and real emotion adds blood and life to the film.
Phoenix keeps pace with the ladies, for the most part, but he suffers from the fact that he plays a character that never lives up to its own billing. Jill and Rita and other minor characters rhapsodize over Abe’s brilliance, but in the end we never really see it. His philosophical declarations are of the Philosophy for Dummies variety, and his fetishizing of joylessness rises to the level of your average college sophomore. As a result, it just becomes too hard to believe Phoenix’s performance because his character rings so hollow.
Despite it all, Irrational Man does offer the occasional nugget of satisfaction here and there, and its climatic moment is surprisingly intense and effective. Rarely has Allen’s presentation of violence been so raw and sudden, and punctuating a film that has seemed so lazy to that point with such a startling moment only amplifies its power.
In Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, Allen offered competing positions on whether crime must be punished. And though Allen never resolves the philosophical issues he raises in Irrational Man, he does definitively break the tie on the question of whether or not justice must be served.