It ain’t easy being a Woody Allen fan these days. Aside from being required to ignore any and all news stories about his personal life, you also have to recognize that in order for Allen to maintain his one-movie-a-year schedule, most of them will be pretty bad. The ratio of bad Woodys to good Woodys is about 2:1 at this point. After ‘Magic in the Moonlight‘ and now ‘Irrational Man’, we must be due for a good one. Start lining up for his next flick rather than attending this one.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Woody’s latest depressed intellectual. He plays Abe, a genius and romantically dark philosophy professor who spends his life bumbling from one short-term teaching job to the next fuelled by a steady stream of hard liquor and endless brooding in sunglasses. When both a perky student named Jill (Emma Stone) and a perky teacher named Rita (Parker Posey) become pie-eyed obsessed with Abe’s sadsack routine, it starts to feel like this is going to be another of Woody’s “Intellectuals are too smart to love” anti-rom-coms. Then, just as that setup starts to run out of steam, Allen irrationally introduces some murderous intentions to Phoenix’s weirdo character. At that point, the movie turns into one of Allen’s existential murder dilemma stories like ‘Match Point’ or ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors‘. It’s like getting two half-baked and derivative Woody Allen flicks for the price of one.
It has to be said that Joaquin Phoenix does help his cause to be named the finest actor of his generation by almost rising above the material. He might be saddled with a half-baked character, but he runs with it. Phoenix turns all of Abe’s confused inconsistencies into strengths, transforming an underwritten role into a character who doesn’t seem to know what he is. Sure, Phoenix essentially steamrolls over all his jokes to focus on pained tragedy, but there aren’t really many laughs here anyway, so that was likely for the best.
Stone doesn’t act in the movie so much as recite lines and smile. To be fair, she doesn’t have much of a character to play beyond the male fantasy of an endlessly adoring young beauty who loves the hero for no apparent reason. She has enough natural on-screen charisma to almost pull that off, but the key word there is “almost.” Parker Posey fares by far the best of all the main cast members. She finds genuine pain in her burned-out role, while also infusing as many of her scenes with quirky comedy lacking on the page. It’s no shock to learn that she’s already been cast in Woody’s next project. Posey is easily the highlight of the film, and hopefully the next Woody she shows up in will be worthy of her talents.
Given the sheer volume of wonderful movies that Woody Allen has given to the world (as recently as ‘Midnight in Paris‘ or ‘Blue Jasmine‘ just a couple years ago), it’s always a bit tough to watch his lesser efforts like ‘Irrational Man’. All of the filmmaker’s patented tricks and ticks are present in his failures, but they always lack the energy or the focus, and suggest that he lost interest in the movie. It’s almost as if Allen starts shooting his scripts before he can even decide if they’re any good, and when they fall apart he simply checks out as a filmmaker. ‘Irrational Man’ has some scenes so clumsily staged that it’s a shock a director this accomplished made them, and the less said about the tacked-on voiceover desperately over-explaining the characters’ motivations the better.
Unfortunately, this is one of those completely disposable Woody Allen movies and likely one of his worst, if only because it’s so reminiscent of so many previous triumphs in unflattering ways (not to mention a complete waste of Joaquin Phoenix at the peak of that actor’s powers). Still, the nice thing about being a Woody Allen fan is that the bad taste of a failure tends to get washed away by a success rather quickly. Maybe Allen needs these lesser movies to inspire him to make another great one. If so, this movie should be extra inspiring for the director.