Director: Woody Allen
Woody Allen is in a holding pattern. He knows it – he’s been there before, will be there again (may never get out of this current one actually). He’s recently had yet another late comeback with Midnight In Paris doing the box-office business and Blue Jasmine picking up kudos for an incredible central performance – and for being the (far) smarter film; hard to watch for some maybe, but the best thing he’s done since Match Point, one of the other late career comebacks.
Match Point is something of a reference point here – as are plenty of other Allen films (including the lesser-referenced, less-watched Cassandra’s Dream) and though this features yet another performance from (the what-the-fuck-does-anyone-see-in-her) Emma Stone and yet another older man/younger girl romance at least this is a vast improvement on Magic In The Moonlight. Where that was just sleepwalking, this aims to be a sleeper-hit.
And the ‘hit’ in this movie is absolutely Joaquin Phoenix. No real surprise. He’s usually terrific. But his great skill here is in inhabiting the Woody-writes-for-Woody-esque role by ignoring anything resembling a Woody Allen tic or trait or (mock) tirade. He’s almost off-putting at first, so off-kilter is Phoenix, drifting and (nearly) coasting and rolling on through the film as if he’s more exciting to see his pot-belly than any of his co-stars; it could be argued he works (far) closer with his stomach than with Stone or Parker Posey (the other near-revelation here, and why she hasn’t been in Woody’s world for longer seems odd as soon as you see her square-peg fit here).
The problem with Irrational Man – and, well, there are a few – is that it’s tonally wrong. Some of that is, perhaps paradoxically, what gives it a strength (the already discussed Phoenix decision to ignore being Owen Wilson in a Woody Allen film, or Leonardo DiCaprio in a Woody Allen film, or John Cusack in a Woody Allen film – or most annoyingly Kenneth Branagh in a Woody Allen film). But really Woody seems so lost as he continues to make movies in the present setting with no real clue how as to how real people speak or live or operate. I’ve always been such a devotee – blocked out the bad as merely mediocre, celebrated some of the borderline-mediocre as wonderful – that I’ve chosen to interpret it as the fact that Woody knows reel people; film is his medium. And even when he’s going full morality-play (and geez, he barely raises the flag to half-mast here) he is working with “a version” of people for his aversion to (real) truth.
But that thought niggled at me the whole way through Irrational Man. And that’s not a good thing. I believed Joaquin as Abe, the alcoholic, impotent and blocked writer/philosopher. I believed Posey as the adulterous and bored Rita, and I tolerated Stone (like I never have before) as student Jill. But I couldn’t believe – even with the trick Allen had up his sleeve (and the ending saves the film, as well as being a giant cop-out!) – that any of this would really play out like this; that people could present themselves and speak like this. The peripheral characters particularly.
But maybe that’s the problem. Seeing yet another version of The Greek Chorus, and hearing yet another version of the circular music theme (this time it’s Ramsey Lewis’s cool jazz as part-bop part-pop) and knowing that the “bigger question” that lurked somewhere, this time lazily, near the script was all so obviously in the been-done-so-many-times-before file as to render this a tad useless. Better than Woody’s Truly Bad Ideas films (which is every third one, roughly) but just not crafted enough.
All of that means that if you’re a Woody Allen film you’ll find some worth in this, some way to justify 90 minutes at the cinema (I did – just). And if you’re suspicious and a fair-weather friend of his films then stay away.