By Tom Platt. Armed with a flask of single malt scotch in his back pocket, a potbellied philosophy professor swims through the deep ocean of impotence, quoting Immanuel Kant in search of his own personal joie de vivre.
With Irrational Man, Woody Allen presents another study in sought-after purpose amongst the existentially-conflicted upper middle class. Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is starting at a new school while grappling with a mysterious past, which naturally garners the rapt attention of two swooning females; chemistry professor, Rita (Parker Posey), and grad student, Jill (Emma Stone), find themselves enamored with the mentally ungrounded professor for little to no reason at all. It’s all very standard for a post-Match Point Allen work. Very standard, and far too familiar.
Because everything about this is so very straightforward, and even when it’s not, it’s all made painstakingly clear by the hounding presence of two separate voiceovers. Both Abe and Jill are given time to walk the audience through what’s going on, but despite being very well-versed philosophers in their own right, neither of them offer any valuable insight. (Anyone harboring hopes to enjoy Allen’s typical lyricism might be disappointed.)
More irritating than this, however, is the way in which both Jill and Rita are presented. Despite both women being fully matured while investing in their own serious relationships, neither can help but throw themselves at Abe at any given moment. They both seem to see something romantic in the semi-renowned (and mostly conflicted) alcoholic philosophy professor in the grips of a crippling existential despair (commonly referred to as a mid-life crisis), but then again maybe that’s the joke.
Following the outline of a 50’s film noir, Irrational Man finds a unique way of quietly hitting the classic notes without throwing it too directly towards the audience’s face (save for those voiceovers). With Emma Stone acting as the woman in red, coercing Joaquin Phoenix along a detective case that he is quickly manufacturing for himself, murder and intrigue abound by the end of this exploration of a haughty east coast college town. The film is assembled with such intent that it becomes frustrating to hear Allen’s tin-eared dialogue, but it still keeps viewers entertained with its deliberate attention to detail.
Unable to shy far from the white upper class lifestyle, Allen once again presents a film devoid of diversity. The whole piece feels as if it’s from a bygone era, everything from the dialogue to the scenery itself. After all these years Woody Allen still fails to step beyond his own blinders, hiding in a New York where racial diversity is fine for the background, but painfully denied for the main stage.
It becomes difficult not to become frustrated with the filmmaker’s ability to churn out film after film without stopping to ask himself what he’s trying to say. Allen’s films can hardly be considered a series of refinements, and with the velocity in which he starts and completes projects it can often feel more like a comedian constantly trying out new material, as opposed to a master of cinema refining his craft.
As for Irrational Man, it flutters into the towering stack of his late-career oeuvre. Lovely moments and acting aside, the film’s overall presentation is an all-too familiar reminder that Allen may be a director far past his prime. Perhaps his next film will be a winner, but if not there’s always the year after that, or the year after that…