In reflecting on Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man, my friend and I, who are both passionate Allen fans, agreed that even mediocre Allen is better than most films, and that Irrational Man is something of a mediocrity, but by that standard it’s pretty good compared to other films.
I mean, what other director, whose work appears in multiplexes, expects you to know the difference between Kant and Kierkegaard and has a line like “Who needs another book on Heidegger and neo-fascism” that is supposed to be a joke? If some movies expect you to leave your brains at the door of the theater, Allen demands you hang on to them, and hopefully have one more than degree.
As usual with Allen in his late years (I assume they’re late, the man turns 80 in December) is that he is cribbing from himself. Irrational Man resembles Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, in that it deals with the morality of murder and, above all, moral relativism. This time he asks, through his main character, is it acceptable to kill someone to improve the common good?
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor new to Braden College, which appears to be in Newport, Rhode Island. Everyone says he is brilliant, which to me is telling and not showing. Phoenix is perpetually glum, carries a flask full of single malt scotch where ever he goes, has an impressive beer belly, and is impotent. Naturally he’s lusted after by more than one woman.
His problem is that he has lost interest in life. He dutifully teaches, and attracts the interest of another faculty member (Parker Posey), who wants him to take her away to Spain. He also draws the interest of a student, Emma Stone, who has a boyfriend (Jamie Blackley), but she falls in love with Phoenix. Now, Allen, either completely tone-deaf to criticisms of making movies about younger women with older men, or figuring, “If it could happen to me…” doesn’t help his cause by this, but I figure Allen doesn’t really give a fuck about this by now. I will say a pairing between Phoenix and Stone is a lot less creepy than Stone and Colin Firth in last year’s lamentable Magic in the Moonlight.
So, Phoenix is in a funk, even if he does have two attractive women chasing him, when he and Stone overhear a conversation about a corrupt judge. Energized, Phoenix decides to kill him, and a college romance is suddenly a murder thriller. Allen is pretty good with these–he could have been Agatha Christie in another life–and as with Match Point inserts uses an object we had forgotten about it to determine the climax.
There are problems with the movie, though, other than what I’ve mentioned. There’s too much unnecessary voice over, in a key scene Phoenix too easily enters the elevator room of an office building (don’t they lock those things?) and Blackley, as Stone’s boyfriend, looks like a model from Abercrombie and Fitch and has absolutely no personality, other than that he likes sweaters. The other performers are good, but since it’s been said Allen doesn’t really give his actors direction they all seem to be acting in a different movie.
Phoenix, based on his last three roles (Her, Inherent Vice, and this one) has settled into a groove of playing shaggy dog like roles, but it suits him. I never really bought him as a philosophy professor, but I’m not sure what a philosophy professor really acts like. Stone is very impressive, putting a lot of emotion into the part, even as she doesn’t quite seem to believe it. You may throw up in your mouth a little bit when, at dinner, she tells Phoenix, “I like when you order for me.” Only someone extremely old-school like Allen would think a modern woman would like that. I suppose he orders for Soon-yi.
If I had to rank all of Allens’ films I would say this comes somewhere in the middle, maybe a little lower, and as I said, that makes it one of this summer’s better films.
My grade for Irrational Man: B-.