Dir: Woody Allen
Woody Allen has settled into a groove of sorts. He releases a movie a year these days, often with returning cast members. There’s a level of expectability too: the talky plots, the jazz soundtrack, the familiar titles format and...the older cast member falling for the seemingly too young female cast member. That last one always seems to be there, almost daring us to not see echoes into the personal life of Allen. It’s at that point that one inevitably has to have an inner debate with one self. In the wake of public accusations and murmuring about the director, is it possible to ignore an artist’s private life and appreciate the art?
If it is possible, then let us look at Irrational Man.
Staff at a nondescript American college are excited that a burnt-out but brilliant Philosophy lecturer and author is coming to teach. Almost at odds with his nihilistic nature, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) soon forms relationships with a fellow teacher (Parker Posey) and young student (Emma Stone). It is only once a chance occurrence startles him into a dramatic decision that Abe regains a sense of meaning and his joi de vivre. But can Abe follow that decision through into action? And should he?
On the surface Woody Allen has written a script that plays with philosophical ideas about action and inaction, fate and destiny, decision and consequence. His protagonist, Abe is ably portrayed by Phoenix who has no fear in playing a thoroughly unlikeable character. His haggard face, pot belly and disheveled look match his inner sense of hopelessness. Parker Posey does as much as she can with a character created to deliver expository monologues. It’s a wonder it’s taken this long for Allen to cast her; she’s seemingly made for his style of cerebral dark humour. Emma Stone provides a counter point of perkiness and naivety. Certainly her style of delivery is more at home in a movie set in contemporary times, in contrast with the roaring twenties of Magic in the Moonlight, Allen’s last film.
But that script? Really, it’s all surface. Abe is supposed to be an intensely intelligent academic with wonderfully original ideas. But the script only shows him delivering the ideas of others, Kierkegaard and Cant. He’s as original as a Wikipedia article, especially if it was one written by a Yr 9 student. That’s a major problem for a film that sets itself up as dealing with weighty issues yet doesn’t manage to lift the barbells off the ground. It’s superficial to a point. To me, Magic in the Moonlight was the same. That film invoked issues of faith and scepticism but did so with the insipid insight of a less-than-novice.
Various scenes in the film look like outtakes (especially those of Stone). I can appreciate the stuttering style of line delivery favoured by Allen but some take that too far. Allen is renowned for not giving his actors any actual direction but that now results in performances that are caricatures of past films.
The script also makes the fatal error of breaking the cardinal rule of filmmaking: Show, don’t tell. Instead Irrational Man is full of exposition. Characters explain what’s going on, rather than allowing their actions to communicate. Particular crucial plot moments involve one person sharing something they overheard someone else say...but why not just show it? This may seem a little technical but the casual movie viewer will be left with a sense of dis-ease. There are rules of storytelling that should not be broken.
I left the cinema with a profound sense of disappointment. As a fan, I loved 2013’s Blue Jasmine and felt it was a return to form. But Magic in the Moonlight and now Irrational Man leaves me wondering if it’s time for Woody Allen to retire.