Despite how much I genuinely adore his work, I can only call myself a casual Woody Allen fan. I’ve now seen 10 of his films, which would seem like a high number if his feature length directorial efforts didn’t number in the high 40’s. I’ve read two of his four prose collections, Getting Even & Side Effects, both of which I enjoyed immensely. Still, that being only a fraction of his work, I feel entirely unqualified to be writing about Woody Allen. I suppose this is a disclaimer. Well, anyways…
Allen’s 50 year film career has seen dizzying peaks, ocean-floor lows, and just about every single notch of the atmosphere in between. At this point, his Stephen King-level rate of output (averaging a film per year) can seemingly only yield two results: (1) a taut, eloquent, philosophically engaging tour de force that couldn’t possibly have been achieved in a year; or (2), a tired, plot-retreading dud that can’t help but feel both rushed, and even worse, forced. IRRATIONAL MAN is, unfortunately, a #2.
That’s not to say the film is all bad. Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone (who is apparently Woody’s latest muse), and Parker Posey all nail their roles. Phoenix is almost too believable as the drunken, nihilistic philosophy professor Abe Lucas, and both Stone and Posey succeed in adding depth to cliché characters – Stone, the doting grad student who has fallen hopelessly for her enigmatic professor, and Posey, the unhappily married romantic longing to be whisked away to Spain to start anew. The questions Allen raises with the film are not entirely without merit, either. Engaging with Kant, Kierkegaard, and Sartre (by way of Abe’s classroom lectures), he waxes on the question of objective morality – more specifically, the notion of a justifiable murder. Perhaps the best morsel of philosophy Allen espouses through Abe is a simple point levied at the arguers of a perfect world (Plato’s ideal forms, Kant’s “No-Lying” world, etc.) – that those worlds are simply not reality – not the “real” world we’re speaking in, and therefore irrelevant to “me.”
Aside from all this, it’s inarguable that IRRATIONAL MAN was ripped right out of Allen’s old, sometimes-trusty playbook. The back-and-forth voiceover narration of Phoenix and Stone attempts to infuse the story with thoughtful insight, but comes off stuffy and only adds to the film’s rushed feeling. It relies on the typical Allen tropes of nihilism, morality, inappropriate relationships, love triangles, self-deprecation, and the like, which render the film ironically just too “Woody Allen.” The murder plot itself too closely resembles Allen’s earlier works CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS and MATCH POINT, which both had far more believable motivations. It becomes clear just how much Allen was phoning this one in when the flashlight serves the same-but-opposite “unexpected” purpose as the ring in MATCH POINT. Nice try, Woody. All in all, IRRATIONAL MAN isn’t a complete misfire, but still contributes next to nothing to Allen’s filmography. It is the cinematic equivalent of a shrug.
Woody Allen is a genius, but we can’t expect a piece of genius every year. His work speaks for itself (24 personal Oscar nominations) and will continue to. I for one am looking forward to his upcoming Amazon series (his first), as well as his next feature length picture. Let’s just hope it’s not another #2.