New on DVD: Irrational Man

irrational.man_.woody_.allen_.review
Emma Stone falls head over heels for Joaquin Phoenix in Woody Allen’s clunker Irrational Man, now on DVD.

Hooked on Film rating:

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

I’m going to go out on a limb and defend Woody Allen for having made this oddity of a film rife with potential but flat as Kansas in tone and overall delivery. Allen makes a movie a year, and has done so since the late 60s. Ever since he gained status as the giant he became in the late 70s and throughout most of the 80s, the quality of his output starting with 1993 (a year Allen would rather forget) has slowly morphed into what I call diminishing returns that on occasion hold a spark of the wit and cynicism the man’s movies once held. This is the man who, ever since Match Point –widely considered to be his comeback film after having been all but forgotten (even as he relentlessly forged ahead, movie after movie)– went back into something of a valley of creativity peaking with the sublime Blue Jasmine (and gave Cate Blanchett another gold statue while also bestowing Sally Hawkins her first nomination for supporting actress). Magic in the Moonlight was a delightful farce that revisited, to a degree, the magician sequence from Shadows and Fog, and not only gave Emma Stone and Colin Firth well-rounded, amoral characters, but also gave veteran British actress Eileen Atkins a juicy part to sink her teeth in, and boy, did she.

There’s the often quoted saying that after a while writers tend to tell the same story over and over again. That isn’t such a bad idea, but when it becomes so self-referential as to resemble parody, then it poses a problem of either storytelling or focus. But far from me to tell Allen how to direct and write a film. The man has, as I said, made a film for nearly every year since 1970 and has himself stated profound dissatisfaction with their results.

Irrational Man falls under this category, and I’ll tell you why. In this movie Allen presents Abe Lucas (who is almost always referred to by first and last name), a philosophy professor who seems to have lost his sense of purpose in the world. When he meets Jill Pollard, sparks don’t exactly fly, but she is smitten. Why, we don’t know. The movie won’t tell us, and here she begins to talk non-stop about Abe Lucas as if he were some sort of god that she’d encountered. While doing this, she estranges her boyfriend, but then again, I’d walk out of the beating of a dead horse, if at all to conserve the peace, and either do so permanently or let this folly play itself out and return once the crazy was back to normal.

Jill doesn’t return to normal. She and Abe initiate a relationship that seems as platonic as it s uncomfortable, and while he’s at it, he throws Heidegger, Dostoevsky, and other Allen go-to existentialists for good measure with the enthusiasm of a man wishing death would just come and take him away. Jill, of course, fawns.

And then — the moment the plot turns into high gear. I think. Jill overhears a conversation at a restaurant and has Abe come over to her side to listen in. The people in the booth behind them –a woman and some friends — are discussing a nasty custody battle. It’s here that Abe’s light-bulb goes off, and he gets an idea as dark as anything presented on Discovery ID. He decides to kill the judge that would rule against the woman.

This in itself under a director more accustomed to suspense stories would have made an excellent story about moral choices and people who look into the abyss. The problem with Allen presenting it, is that he continually leaves his story as casual as a car commercial featuring cool people. His constant use of Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd” seems to punctuate this off-handedness. It’s appropriate during the opening part of the movie, but like a joke that gets told too often, it runs itself to the ground or morphs into a swinging cocktail party. And then, that voice-over narration. Talk about committing an act of self-mutilation: that in itself becomes a fatal blow to the movie. Car crash. Bodies all over the place. Bring in the yellow tape; we have a crime scene masquerading as a comedy-thriller. The part of Annie Hall Allen (wisely) left out. Remember that?

And while I’m at it, to call the second and last act Hitchcockian (as some reviewers have) is an insult to the Master of Suspense. You just don’t care enough for any of the characters and there is no sense of dread, of a darkening of the plot, of a man even aware that he is having a repressed breakdown and will rationalize taking a few with him. And on and on, Ramsey Lewis winks at the audience. The audience? Not so much.

Parker Posey makes her first appearance in Woody Allen's Irrational Man.
Parker Posey makes her first appearance in Woody Allen’s Irrational Man.

Irrational Man is a colossal misfire that never  takes off or develop as a whole. Its schizophrenic scenario makes it seem like a disjointed, haphazard puzzle where all the pieces are there, but neither make an effort to try and fit.  Joaquin Phoenix is okay in his miserable character — at least he makes the part of Abe Lucas his own, kind of. Emma Stone and Parker Posey? They fare much worse, delivering two egregiously wasted  performances. They are interchangeable mannequins, stand-ins for the small roles that Shelly DuVall, Janet Margolis, and Carol Kane played in Annie Hall as women fawning head over heels over Allen the actor/director (who could be less interested in them, but morbidly fascinated with his own crumbling ruminations). Yes, they serve a purpose in the story, but seeing how Irrational Man took a backseat from entertaining to being on autopilot, the only question remains, what for? That, I will state, is a mystery this bland movie will not answer. Stick with Match Point for a good mystery. This, sadly, is throwable, recycled, half-baked, late-period Allen juggling for a plot.

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