by Philip Price
In Woody Allen's annual mid-year release we have a typical, late-era Woody Allen film that is more shrug-worthy than anything since the two forgettable cushions on either side of 2011's “Midnight in Paris.” Every few years the insanely consistent writer/director will deliver something more substantial, something truly affecting, but more times than not we get something akin to what we have this year in “Irrational Man.” Since becoming rather invested in the art of watching films I have returned to the essential Allen in order to be hip to my craft (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters”), but I've probably been reading about Allen's films since “Small Time Crooks” (2000) and seeing them in theaters since ‘Paris’ (2011). Since I've been catching them on a regular basis in their theatrical run though, I've only purchased two that I felt were worth revisiting those being ‘Paris’ and 2013's “Blue Jasmine.” It's hard to find much motivation to return to Allen's films because they each more or less offer the same things. There is some philosophizing about a certain area of life under a certain set of character induced circumstances that typically ends up dealing with existentialism in one way or another. This type of conversation and discussion can certainly be interesting, but because of these tendencies Allen's films themselves are more interesting to talk about than they are to actually experience. It's hard to even call Allen's films an experience as they are more lectures than anything else, but every once in a while you actually take something away from them. With “Irrational Man” though, the only things I took away were that Emma Stone is in fact Allen's latest muse and that Joaquin Phoenix is trying really hard to let us know he put on a pot belly for this role (admittedly among other, deeper things). Whether the point of Phoenix's character being a philosophy professor signals Allen is getting one step closer to just sitting down and filming himself talk for an hour and half on a certain subject, we'll have to wait and see, but more than any time over the last four years I felt like time and age were beginning to catch up to the auteur.
“Irrational Man” concerns itself with tormented professor Abe Lucas (Phoenix) and his distaste for life in his current state. In the beginning of the film Abe moves to the beautifully picturesque town of Newport, R.I. where he has taken a position in the psychology department of Braylin College. Upon arriving Abe is disheveled and an alcoholic, but he is still a well-renowned writer and philanthropist in his field so the women naturally throw themselves at him (that happens, right?). First, there is Rita Richards (Parker Posey) who seems to be the campus floozy as far as faculty is concerned and whom Abe takes up a purely sexual relationship with in order to try and find some, "satisfaction in distraction" while becoming enchanted with and rather charmed by one of his students, Jill (Stone). Jill is something of a precocious college student, but justifiably so given both of her parents are professors at Braylin as well as having been raised just off campus in this world of pure academia. As she is expected to, Jill is dating the innocent and unsuspecting Roy (Jamie Blackley) with which she expects to settle down and produce babies as they raise them under similar circumstances to her own. Still, she can't help but to find Abe attractive because of his clear complications (which she repeats incessantly). There are equal amounts narration and dialogue that tell us of Abe's internal conflicts and his struggle to find purpose in life. He talks of the differences between the theoretical bullshit he spouts off in his classroom and the real world that exists outside of it where theory and ideas aren't as relevant in real-life situations. These challenging and intriguing claims only pull Jill in further to the unintended spell that Abe is casting and the two begin what we are led to believe is a platonic relationship though things are clearly headed in a certain other direction and yet no one besides Rita seems to find it strange. Abe tries his damnedest to keep things on this strictly platonic level, but he likes his ideas to be challenged and when Jill does exactly that, he can't help but to give in.
This summation of the events of the film doesn't even get into the crux of the plot though as what I've described so far is more or less the first half hour of the film. At this point in the narrative a rather odd turn takes place where Abe and Jill are having breakfast (yes, they do these types of things and no one bats an eye) and overhear a woman talking about a corrupt judge and how she is inevitably going to lose her children to their unworthy father. This sparks a change in Abe with the idea that he can take action, include risk in his routine while in the end making the world a better place and making him actually feel alive rather than just another passive intellectual. He will accomplish this by killing the judge and justifies the thought by telling himself the world will be a better place, if only by an indeterminable percentage, for having erased this man's existence from it. This feels like it's going a long way to make a rather standard point. I mean, is Phoenix's character really so far gone that murdering someone is the only thing that can truly get this guy off? This is only the beginning of the issues I took with the film though as everything from the filmmaking to the dialogue feels stilted and forced in a way that typically doesn't accompany an Allen picture despite knowing what we're getting. That isn't to say Allen has even been a mega-proficient or progressive director (he gets the coverage he needs to get by), but writing is where he lives and yet some of the dialogue that is spoken here (while being in tune with Allen's typical style) is legitimately awful. At one point, I began to wonder whether or not this was intended to be a parody of itself. The way in which Stone delivers some of her lines as she goes on and on about how interesting Abe is included just enough sarcastic nuance to suggest there was more going on below the surface than above, but alas, by the time the film becomes a crime caper that has Abe following the aforementioned judge and stealing keys to access cyanide it reaches levels of ridiculousness that the ideas it does tap into intermittently aren't worth the hassle.
And yes, there are some interesting ideas here. Of course there are. The main idea surrounding that of Abe and his tendency to be an original thinker who can't be judged by middle class rules is especially enticing. Phoenix's performance only enhances this complex mentality by showing audiences the real struggle the man has with wanting to be responsible, for what he says and for his actions, but also challenging his rules. Of course, this is all in theory alone as the moment any real world circumstances come into play Abe becomes a sniveling hypocrite who's self-aware enough to know he isn't made for the world of hardened humans. He is a soft thinker, someone who believes himself exceptional and therefore not punishable by those who are less intelligent than he. This is likely how Allen thinks of himself as well and while Abe likes to be challenged in his ideas I can't help but wonder if Allen would enjoy the same thing concerning his films. At this point, the director seems to have an organized idea of how he likes to view the world and what he thinks on any given subject that he doesn't care to have disrupted and that he dollies out into each film. That's fine, we accept a Woody Allen film for what it is these days, a Woody Allen film. Still, despite whatever points certain ideas and Phoenix's performance garner “Irrational Man” they couldn't take away from the painfully excruciating aspects of the film that include a cringe-inducing party scene with privileged white kids, the way these people spout dialogue we might think, but would never openly share, the fact Abe and Jill can go to the fair and Roy's excuse for being "okay" with it being that he's studying or the simple, unnecessary detail about Jill having a friend she sometimes goes horseback riding with that is thrown in for no other reason than it seems to be the only reason Allen can think of for two people to know one another. The biggest of them all though is the turn that takes place in Jill realizing she's not as edgy as she thought she was. This turn almost destroys what I suspected Allen was building to the whole time in that Jill wouldn't settle for always being Abe's student, but would eventually transition to his equal. Rather than exploring this territory though we are given a reiteration of the, "difference between theoretical bullshit and real-life situations," lecture we've already discussed and examined.