By now it has been well established that Woody Allen is the most hit-or-miss filmmaker of our time. When he hits his mark we get sharp, witty, and sometimes magical character studies. But when he shoots wide the results are often dull, plodding, or simply vainglorious exercises in nothingness.
At 79 years-old Allen continues his practice of churning out one movie each year. There’s something to admire about that. It is also admirable that he can still write and direct his films on his own terms. But the problems become obvious when you examine the collective quality of his work particularly in his later years. The sheer lack of consistency is glaring which leaves me wishing he would dump his annualized obsession.
“Irrational Man” is a perfect example. It’s another clumsy and self-important mess of a film that feels like a handful of ideas thrown together and then connected by line after line of narration. It’s also Allen in full pseudo-intellectual mode with steady injections of existential thinking and human philosophy (“Irrational Man” is also the title of a popular philosophy book by William Barrett). Unfortunately none of Allen’s musings offer an ounce of weight to a movie in desperate need of it.
The meandering first act introduces us to Abe Lucas (played with waffling interest by Joaquin Phoenix). He’s a new philosophy professor at Braylin College. Wallowing in his own existential crisis, Abe a miserable, brooding recluse but still not without his fans. Rita (Parker Posey) is an unhappily married fellow professor who is instantly smitten with Abe. The two develop a quick and self-serving relationship but even it doesn’t pull Abe from his emotional mire.
Things slowly begin to change for Abe as he grows closer to one of his students Jill played by Emma Stone (Yep, again we have Woody Allen creepily exploring the ‘older man and younger woman’ territory). At first she seems like a philosophy groupie but the two eventually become friends despite Abe’s emotional lethargy. Jill begins slowly chipping away at Abe’s walls. One serendipitous encounter with a troubled young mother later, and Abe has found a new purpose in life and his relationship with Jill turns romantic.
I won’t give it a way, but after about 40 minutes of blathering the plot’s direction makes an about-face and heads in a completely different and oddly intriguing direction. As absurd as it is, the plot turn does inject the film with some much needed narrative energy. Even it isn’t handled perfectly but it does give these characters more to do than just represent Allen’s self-reflections through long inflated conversations.
The new story angle isn’t enough to save “Irrational Man” from its plethora of problems. Even Woody Allen’s direction seems unsure of itself and several creative choices simply don’t work. Take the overuse of the Ramsey Lewis piano riff. It goes from catchy and stylish to boring and repetitive simply because Allen is constantly using it. There is also a surprising visual torpidity that is obvious throughout the entire film. The look of the movie is as bland and generic as anything Allen has ever done.
For all the promise the film teases and for any potential that may be there, ultimately “Irrational Man” comes across as paper-thin. There are also a number of indicators that this may have been a terribly rushed production. Whatever the reasons, perhaps now is the time for Allen to buck this yearly movie thing and concentrate on giving us one more of those truly magical experiences.
VERDICT – 2 STARS