Another year, another Woody Allen movie. Or, rather, should that be: another year, the same Woody Allen movie? The appearance on screen of those oh-so-familiar white-on-black credits may still generate a certain excitement for some of us, but the extent to which you consider Allen’s tendency to return to favorite plots, themes, and character types to be evidence of a filmmaker still grappling bravely with personal obsessions, or simply evidence of desperate recycling, will likely determine your response to Irrational Man, which is screening out of competition (as Allen always stipulates) at Cannes 2015.
Following the wildly overrated Blue Jasmine (2013) and the slight but quite charming Magic in the Moonlight (2014), Allen’s latest offering finds him mining his preoccupation with crimes and moral choices once more. The result proves moderately entertaining, but Irrational Man is too overt in its mash-up of bits of previous Allen features, and, ultimately, too obvious all round. You won’t be able to miss the themes that the movie’s dealing with, since not one but two voiceovers keep stating them.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor who, as the movie opens, is arriving to take up a new post at a Rhode Island college. Sozzled and suicidal, Abe is blocked, depressed and impotent, suffering a major case of academic burn-out. But none of that matters much to Jill (Emma Stone), a bright, charming student who — “naturally” — is immediately smitten with him. “I wanted to be a world-changer and I’ve ended up a passive intellectual who can’t fuck,” Abe bleats, as Jill listens sympathetically. A turning point comes, however, when Abe overhears a conversation about an upcoming court case that leaves him with murder in mind — and, it turns out, the opportunity to get his mojo back in the process.
Allen has sometimes been too explicit in his approach to major themes, and a certain clunkiness pervades Irrational Man from the off. The movie actually begins by outlining what it will be about — “morality, choice and murder” — and ends by summing up. It’s like the work of a diligent, slightly insecure student who wants to make really, really sure we get the point they’re making. The notion of a dual voiceover — with Abe and Jill taking turns to chip in — is intriguing, and Allen used voiceover for some good, distancing effects in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
Here, though, the device is disastrous. The characters keep telling us what we’ve already perceived, or else filling in details that haven’t been sufficiently dramatized. (“I was swept off my feet by Abe Lucas,” Jill declares.) This spelling-it-out approach feels especially lazy and embarrassing when one has just emerged from a film by Radu Muntean (One Floor Below, reviewed yesterday). Muntean’s movie actually approaches some similar thematic territory to Allen’s: both films pivot on overheard conversations and explore the responses of the protagonists to the information they’ve learned.
But where One Floor Below allows the viewer a great deal of interpretive space, engaging us as emotional and intellectual participants, Irrational Man turns into a Cliffs Notes on itself. Moreover, the movie’s philosophizing, seasoned lightly with a few short snippets of Kant, de Beauvoir and Sartre (he wrote that “Hell is other people,” we’re informed), can’t be said to cut very deep.
A paunchy Phoenix and a radiant Stone perform proficiently but an air of artificiality hangs over many of the exchanges here. The talk is awkward and unwitty. (“I love it when you order for me,” simpers Jill in a restaurant scene before she and Abe end up in bed together, after which she announces “I loved making love with you.”) Pity poor Parker Posey, who’s drafted into the movie to complete a patented one-guy-two-girls Allen scenario, and then given so little that’s funny or meaningful to say or do that the actress can only deliver a clenched and constricted performance.
To give him his due, Allen is in a way attempting something fresh here in terms of genre: the movie might be described as a sunny noir. Still, it’s hard to know what tone is being hoped for when the director includes a clue in the shape of a copy of Crime and Punishment that comes handily marked up with a victim’s name and a Hannah Arendt quotation. (You can probably guess which one.)
For all its shortcomings, the movie does keep up pace, though, even as it reaches an elimination-of-an-inconvenient-female plot element that will come as no surprise at all to those who’ve seen Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) or Match Point (2005). While the film-making is occasionally shoddy (there are some bewildering dissolves early on), Allen, working again with the great director of photography Darius Khondji, does supply a couple of resonant images. The first is a terrific funhouse mirror sequence, and the second is a startling shot of Phoenix’s Abe, breathless with fear and exhilaration, as he walks away from the scene of his crime. That potent shot lasts just a few seconds but it makes the viewer aware of just how much the movie would have benefitted from more such genuine moments of irrationality.