Just read the IMDB plot synopsis for Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and you can easily infer that this new film is no reinvention of the man’s oeuvre. As we well know, Allen has released a movie a year since 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy – some are more out of step with the others, but typically it’s easy to draw the parallels and intersections of his own philosophy and stylistic devices. Fortunately, at 79, Allen is a seasoned craftsman, who’s adept at making his rehashes enjoyable simply because they are familiar. He’s good at what he knows.
Irrational Man, a dramatic comedy about a jaded philosophy professor (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and his relationship with a bright, slightly more optimistic student (Emma Stone), fits hand-in-glove with Allen’s movies – not to mention personal life. The movie’s plot seems to sweep through the last 33-or-so of Allen’s works, collecting morsels from each’s narrative and reintroducing them into its own. There’s a murder plot, in particular, that can’t escape comparisons to Crimes & Misdemeanours, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream.
The paradox of Allen’s protagonists is that as intellectual as they struggle to be, they are often dominated by primal urges and emotional impulses. The intellect is the source of their self-loathing and depression, the latter the source of their demise and further exclusion from social acceptance. There’s a “between the devil and the deep blue sea” element here that hints at Allen’s overarching view on the absurdity of human existence – this idea that the consequences of our acts are, ultimately, defined by luck and chance, rather than some moral imperative.
Abe Lucas (Phoenix) is a character held captive by the same existential quandary. An admired scholar with a credible track record (“I loved your essay on situational ethics,’’ a fellow faculty member tells him), Lucas is in a mental and physical rut. Unkempt dark hair, gangly with a protruding gut, the philosophy wiz is bogged down by impotence and a growing awareness that his life has no meaning. He’s retreated to the recesses of negativity, dismissing his greatest subject as “verbal masturbation” to his students – a unique way, I guess, of preparing them for the semester’s midterms?
A spark ignites when Jill Pollard (Stone) takes a special fascination in her dispirited teacher. Like in Allen’s Husbands & Wives (1992), the two bond over admiration of the other’s work and, more valuably, one’s ability to question the other’s philosophical views. Jill’s outlook is more positive, but at the same time she’s instantly attracted to Abe’s misery and mystery. Negativity, after all, has this kind of built-in allure: if you are this depressed about life on this planet, you must hold some secret to the universe (or, at the very least, be “interesting”).
When we think Irrational Man may just be about simple romance, Allen throws in an unlikely catalyst: When Abe and Jill are sitting at a restaurant, they hear an alarming conversation in a nearby booth. There are whispers from a divorcee, who is in the (lack of due) process of being robbed of her resources by the venal judge handling her trial. Abe concludes: if he were to kill the judge, this would rid the world of yet another corrupt public official and save a poor, innocent woman from financial ruin. Putting situational ethics into practice, Abe devises a murder scheme that, given the circumstances, inherently absolves him and also gives him a new lease on life.
From here, Irrational Man becomes a story of two fixations: Jill’s lust for her mysterious professor and Abe’s lust for murder (what’s typically called a “thrill kill”). This bifurcated narrative explains, like in Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s use of multi-character voiceover. Abe and Jill share the role of narrator, offering their own recollections and internal dialogue. This approach splits the emphasis of drama in two directions, while maintaining a sense of order (and inevitability) to the chaos of the proceedings.
In actuality, as Woody’s grown older, he’s morphed from a modern Aristophanes to somewhat of a modern Sophocles. His most current “comedies” rarely escape the muted tones of tragedy; his often comic absurdism has been blended into both camps. Particularly, Allen’s movies feel more preordained – this sense that the author’s cynical view of life has firmly rooted itself in Allen’s creative sensibilities and will not budge or compensate for some “Hollywood Ending”. When Allen does provide a “happy” ending, as in last year’s Magic in the Moonlight or Midnight in Paris, the emotions (for this critic) register as false, because it feels as if the maker is acting against his own bleak beliefs.
Perhaps, Allen’s nihilism (“we live in a random universe and you’re living a meaningless life,” he said in a recent interview) has finally caught up to him. Because Irrational Man is confidently directed – its rhythm, compositions, and pace are spot on – but noticeably lacking in consequence and conviction. The tragic irony of the finale should hit a lot harder but it doesn’t. It’s strangely indifferent towards its characters and their outcome; one could argue that choice is by design, but Woody’s films always hit better when they twist the dagger of bitter irony or quiet tragedy (I long for the gasps that shook my theatre at the last shot of 2005’s Match Point).
Instead, Irrational Man is more like a jazz solo stuck in constant chorus. Allen’s use of Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “The In Crowd” befits that structure, often transitioning the incidents of the film with the same opening piano solo from that 1964 jazz tune. It gives the film’s narrative the sensation of circularity, making the audience tap their toes, nod their heads and accept where this story is inevitably turning. In a way, Irrational Man works better as music than in twenty-four frames per second as a movie. I called him a craftsman, but Woody Allen is almost better understood as an impresario.