Friday, August 07, 2015

No Rationale Makes IRRATIONAL MAN Into Worthwhile Woody Allen

Now playing at an art house near me:

(Dir. Woody Allen, 2015)

In my review of Woody Allen’s previous film, 2014's MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, I proposed that in the last decade or so of Woody Allen's nearly half-century filmmaking career, every other film is worthwhile. However, while his latest, IRRATIONAL MAN, is a considerable improvement over the fluffy, inconsequential rom com MAGIC, I'm seriously re-thinking that theory.

However, it does starts off intriguingly with protagonist Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a boozing, tortured philosophy professor arriving at the fictional Braylin College in Rhode Island to teach a summer session. Phoenix’s inner monologue/voice over tells us that he’s hit rock bottom emotionally and existentially, while gossip among the staff and students around campus tells us that that’s exactly what makes him attractive (“I kind of like the burnout look,” we hear a coed tell her friends, who wholeheartedly agree).

Before long, Phoenix’s Abe is spending a lot of time with one of his students, Jill Pollard played by Emma Stone, making her second appearance in an Allen film (MAGIC was her first), and he’s also being pursued by Parker Posey as Rita Richards, an unhappily married science professor.

Abe succumbs to Rita, but his mental hang ups have rendered him impotent. This helps him to resist Jill’s attempts to seduce him, citing that she has a devoted boyfriend who’s more suited for her, the preppy Roy played by Jamie Blackley. Blackley is stuck with one of Allen’s clichéd archetypes – the nice guy boyfriend who’s destined to be cheated on.

So for a bit we follow Phoenix and Stone around as they stroll around Braylin (actually Salve Regina University), and Newport discussing the subtleties of situational ethics, and referencing the work of such grand thinkers as Dostoyevsky and Kant. Then an actual plot development occurs – in a diner they overhear a conversation in which a woman talking with friends about her bitter custody battle. The judge presiding over the case is on her ex-husband’s side, and he’s drawing out the trial in order to bleed the woman dry. “I hope the judge gets cancer,” she exclaims, but Abe, stricken by what he hears, starts to hatch a plan in his head.

Abe, believing that he has finally found a meaningful act that will snap him out of his despair, schemes to murder the judge. He figures that his lack of motive and connection to the involved parties will make this the perfect crime, and that the world will be a better place without the corrupt judge. This decision changes Abe’s outlook on life radically, and the scenes in which he plots his victim’s demise are the most compelling in the movie – aided in no small part by the well utilized lively piano jazz of the Ramsey Lewis Trio on the soundtrack.

Abe secures cyanide to do the deed by stealing Rita’s key to the college’s chem lab, and stalks the judge so that he can learn his routine. Early on a Saturday morning, Abe is able to successfully poison the judge’s orange juice while he’s taking a break from running to read the paper on a park bench.

Initially, it looks like Abe has indeed committed the perfect murder as the judge’s death is considered to be by heart attack, but days later an autopsy detects the cyanide. Both Jill and Rita begin to suspect Abe, especially after certain clues start piling up that point to his guilt. Jill confronts Abe and he confesses the crime to her, but sticks to his stance that the murder was morally justified. Then its announced that the police have a suspect and Abe has to deal with the fact that an innocent man may take the fall.

As similar situations have happened in Allen’s work before – most notably in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and MATCH POINT – it can appear that the 79-year old writer/director is obsessed with whether murder can be gotten away with or if we live in a moral universe where that’s impossible. Problem is that he’s handled these themes much better before (especially in CRIMES which it appears he's remade several times now) and in this effort it feels a lot like he’s yet again treading water.

Underneath all the talky philosophizing, there's no interesting ideas that are being expressed in Allen's screenplay. It's pretty by-the-numbers stuff narratively, and its ending is an unsatisfyingly rushed wrap-up. The love story angle, whether it's between Phoenix and Stone or Phoenix and Posey, is fairly unaffecting as well.

But it does feature some fine, appealing acting - Phoenix’s lived-in performance as Abe, a guy who's into Russian novelists and Russian roulette, beautifully conveys a kind of meticulous messiness, Stone makes an energetic effort in embodying Jill, and Posey makes the most out of a underwritten role. On another plus side, returning cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shot Allen's TO ROME WITH LOVE, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, and MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT gives the film a great, lush look (the town of Newport, Rhode Island never looked better), but there’s just not any there there.

Allen’s 46th film as filmmaker is sadly another weak late period effort. It’s time for me to throw the “every other one is good” theory out the window, because there’s not a rationale I can think of that makes IRRATIONAL MAN into worthwhile Woody Allen.

More later...

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