IRRATIONAL MAN * 1 / 2
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley and Ethan Phillips. Written and directed by Woody Allen.
A critic’s fear in reviewing late-period Woody Allen is of sounding as redundant as the movies themselves. Irrational Man is the gobsmackingly prolific writer-director’s forty-fifth theatrical feature, and he’s rigidly adhered to a treadmill-esque movie-a-year schedule since 1982, cranking them out at a clip that would exhaust filmmakers half his age.
Hell, it exhausts me just writing about them. Over the past two decades or so, for every unexpected treat like Midnight in Paris, there’ve been at least five or six pictures’ worth of recycled chaff. A few years ago I only half-jokingly suggested that maybe I should just start cutting and pasting from my previous pieces, as that seems to be Woody’s approach to screenwriting these days.
The rap against Woody Allen used to be that he was just remaking Bergman and Fellini films, which I much preferred to now, when most of the time he’s just remaking his own. The limp Dostoyevsky riff Irrational Man is a story Allen already told, brilliantly, in his 1989 masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors. Then he told it again in Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, to increasingly diminished returns.
Irrational Man is slack and unformed, even by the first-draft standards of recent Woody. It feels like a fugue state of over-familiar Allen tropes — the May-September romance, getting away with murder in a Godless universe, moneyed pseudo-intellectuals and their shrewish middle-aged women, fates determined by cruel strokes of cosmic irony — all delivered in clankingly expository dialogue that sounds like everyone’s reading aloud the subtitles of a poorly translated Swedish film from the 1950’s.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe Lucas, a burnout philosophy professor of notorious reputation who takes a sleepy Rhode Island college by storm. For reasons that remain unclear, he’s all anybody ever talks about (weirdly always saying both his first and last name, “Abe Lucas,” worried, I guess, that he may be confused with the sixteenth President of the United States or the director of Star Wars.) This “Where’s Poochie?” treatment of the character is shockingly at odds with Phoenix’s somnambulant performance, to a point where I fear there might be a joke I’m missing here.
Shambling around in too-tight T-Shirts clinging to his enormous prosthetic beer gut while swigging single-malt from a flask, Abe Lucas indifferently slurs most of his lines with downcast eyes. Phoenix seems to be conducting a prankish experiment as to how little he can give his co-stars to work with; so disengaged he all but recedes into the background of scenes he’s supposed to be dominating. (More than once I recalled David Letterman’s crack: “Sorry you couldn’t be here tonight, Joaquin.”)
And yet to the people of fictional Braylin College, Abe Lucas is a rock star. Emma Stone’s wide-eyed undergrad is instantly smitten with his marble-mouthed misanthropy, much to the chagrin of her ineffectual boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) who wears dorky cable-knit sweaters. Parker Posey’s hag of a chemistry teacher all but throws herself at him at first sight, inviting Abe Lucas over for “some great grass” while her hubby’s away on business.
But our not-so nutty professor has lost his mojo — swamped with such existential despair he can’t even get it up for his fawning female admirers and plays Russian roulette at an undergrad kegger. (Out-of-touch Allen’s idea of a modern college party might be the funniest thing he’s done since Bananas.) Abe Lucas only gets his groove back by deciding to poison a corrupt local family court judge, transcending stuffy conventional morality while making margin notes on the perfect murder in his dog-eared copy of Crime and Punishment.
It tough to tune out Woody’s personal history whenever his sleeping-with-a-teenager protagonist expounds on how killing a family court judge who presides over custody hearings will make the world a better place, so in lieu of opening that particular can of worms let’s just say Irrational Man is my least favorite Avenger.
What’s more confounding is that Allen presents the material without any discernible point of view. The film is shot and scored like a comedy — Darius Khondji’s gorgeous cinematography glows while Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd” plays so many times on the soundtrack you’ll worry that Woody’s Victrola is skipping. But if he was aiming for a farce, he forgot to write any jokes.
There aren’t any pay-offs, dramatic or otherwise. Irrational Man just sits there. And much like in last summer’s deeply annoying Magic in the Moonlight, every story point is repeated three or four times, as if for the benefit of those busy texting or taking multiple bathroom breaks. There are even two dueling narration tracks in which Phoenix and Stone unhelpfully describe exactly what we’re seeing onscreen at any given moment.
This is Emma Stone’s second Woody Allen picture in row, as it appears she’s taken over muse duty now that Scarlett Johansson turned thirty and got too old for him. I felt sorry for her, offered nothing to do here but dress in white and beam beatifically at the older, troubled genius she can’t help but worship. Posey goes all-in on one of his depressingly stock harridan roles. Still, it’s so nice to see her again you’ll wish she and Woody had hooked up back when he still seemed interested in writing Judy Davis parts.
It never brings me any joy reviewing these, as Allen’s made more movies I’ve adored than a lot of film legends. But the sheer profligacy of his output means he’s also helmed at least twice as many stinkers than the worst Hollywood hacks. Woody is famously averse to taking vacations, but sitting through Irrational Man you’ll wish he’d try — just to give us one.