Drama Film Review 2015: "Irrational Man" (Written & Directed by Woody Allen, Starring Joaquin Phoenix, et.al)
If I were to encapsulate this film's strengths and weakness in terms of the quality of an alcoholic libation, I would say it is "middle-shelf Allen". Anyone familiar with the irreverent filmmaker’s far-reaching body of work, middle-shelf for the Woodman is better than most filmmakers on their best days. That is not to excuse many of the truly unfocused or simply lazy attempts (of his predominantly late-career) he has made. But honestly, a filmmaker or just a person in general can't continuously bat .1000 even if the public perception of that artist is expected to maintain that esteem. Allen is human, and like any human, he can get caught up in his own idiosyncrasies and contrivances that could turn a truly juicy plot arc and sap all of the vitality out of it. To say that "Irrational Man", his latest annual sojourn of the soul, completely defied those issues above would be IRRATIONAL. But, I'll say that this one isn't nearly a total stinker thanks in majority part to the ace cast he was able to assemble in the form of Phoenix, Parker Posey and go-to muse-for-hire Emma Stone. One is used to seeing starry casts in Allen's pictures. In fact, some of his films would be bereft without them and anyone who is ANYONE literally leaps 10 feet high in the air the moment they get that call to be in one of his. Despite the ridiculous tabloid fodder and personal life heat he's gotten over the years, Allen still cranks out his movies and stays focused and committed to his craft.
At the outset, Irrational Man's logline and Plot A appear like the ramblings of an old man who himself is caught in a creative nosedive. Abe Lucas, our quasi-protagonist portrayed vigorously well by Joaquin Phoenix, is a world-renowned philosopher and professor caught in the worst slump imaginable. He has no sexual libido, no creative mojo to publish any more papers or groundbreaking theories and he seems to reluctantly accept a new teaching position at a private, Harvard-esque university in Rhode Island to the allure of all the faculty. He is greeted with universal pandemonium at his arrival and is treated by students especially as this celebrity big-whig on campus. We soon find that Abe has many the gift of the gab and even without realizing leaves many people polarized by his viewpoints and off-the-cuff way of life. Some of this doesn't quite feel as well earned as it should and aside from being a good talker and being extremely mercurial which in Allen's universe equals unparalleled attraction, Abe's characterization feels too limp to care. It stands to reason that his character becomes more fleshed out the more he interacts with his multi-dimensional supporting cast. They are the true saving graces of this film.
I'll say this: Parker Posey is simply delightful. It is a real wonder why she and Allen didn't link up previously when he was more in his formative filmmaking days. The star of the very underrated "Party Girl" and, of course, one of the incredible actors sprinkled throughout the Christopher Guest mockumentaries "Best In Show", "Waiting For Guffman", "A Mighty Wind" and "For Your Consideration" gives her role unabashed zest. In contrast to Phoenix's Abe, who constantly proclaims he has lost his interest in living, her Rita is a dynamo who exudes this sly charm and who proves quite the intellectual equal to Abe. Just when he thinks he is many steps ahead of her (and Emma Stone's glistening and doe-eyed student Jill), she sets the stage for his comeuppance once the end credits roll. Her character is one of the more well-written ones throughout this movie and even though she slings zingers from time to time, her lines are at many times reflexive and self-confident as she doesn't play like an extension of the usually neurotic Allen himself. It is made clear that Rita isn't one to be taken advantage of and even though this film skews more toward drama than comedy, I found myself giggling at her plenty of times. Rita has much in common with Cate Blanchett's Jasmine from Allen's 2013 Oscar-nominated "Blue Jasmine." She yearns for the splendors of life and finds herself constantly criticizing her place in it and the mundane existence she finds herself in.
Elsewhere, Emma Stone's Jill initially seems like she is going through the motions. Her play-by-play narration borders on annoying and robs some of the forward mystery thrust of the movie. We meet her as a student at this fictional private college, Braylin as a philosophy major who becomes entangled with Abe after he leaves her a glowing review on her latest term paper. He admits to her that her work is unlike that of his other pupils. Essentially, instead of paraphrasing what other great philosophical minds like Kant, Kierkegaard and Jung have written, she extrapolates on her own original ideas which captivates Abe. From there, at first unrequited romance ensues and it quickly becomes actualized despite Abe's adamant stance that eloping with a student is immoral. Abe then finds himself juggling the affections of Rita and Jill and is surprisingly able to maintain this without either of them catching him in the crossfire. Abe's character begins to get smarmy and detestable and even though he has these two impeccable women at his side, he still feels miserable because it doesn't inject him with genuine satisfaction. Could Abe be a misogynist who is just so effortlessly cool that he is able to mask it? The film never really illuminates that and Allen leaves it up to his audience to decide. As I watched this play out, I called to mind other movies in Allen's early repertoire that dealt with this exact set-up far better. It made me yearn for "Manhattan", "Husbands and Wives", "Hannah And Her Sisters" and "Stardust Memories". Still, I kept watching and hoping a new twist would be added to this film to give it a chance at redemption.
Even though it was late-in-the-game, the last act wound up (for the most part) winning me over. In an inspired change-up and hidden character motivation for Abe, the film subtly morphs into a murder mystery whodunit. Abe hatches a plan to "give his life renewed meaning" by wanting to poison a much reviled judge who has just handed down an unfair sentence to a seemingly defenseless woman. This contorted view winds up tormenting him because he wants to be this woman's guardian angel and against his moral compass and better judgment, actually goes through with it. How did Allen weave these plot threads to arrive at this genre shift? To be sure, the narration started raining down even harder in heftier amounts - a 50/50 split to the film's detriment. Allen seems to have forgotten the tried and true storytelling motto "show don't tell" and instead he "tells" us more than he "shows" with both Abe and Jill narrating segments to foreshadow what their characters and the supporting players will do. In earlier, and better Allen works, the writer-director would most often have one of his characters break the fourth wall and talk to the camera in the form of a soliloquy which is common to stage plays, particularly the ones of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. This bizarre narration approach really blunts the narrative thrust of the proceedings and just when the sails of this ship are at full mast and speeding by enjoyably in this final portion, the movie doesn't quite stick the landing despite commendable work by all of the actors involved. Even the best, I suppose, can't mask gimmicky plot devices.
For what it’s worth, if you are uninitiated with Allen, this would be a decent starting point for his later period work even if you are better off viewing his masterful drama 2005's "Match Point" (from which Irrational Man borrows from in more ways than one) or his whimsical 2011's "Midnight In Paris". All other vets of his movies can pop on any of his works from the 70's, 80's or 90's and can knowingly skip over the work he's produced in the 2000's. If this is any indication, this movie leaves all kinds of unanswered and rather discouraging questions for his upcoming 2016 Amazon-produced TV series. Still, a gold star for his prolific work ethic.