The tough job of hanging onto a modicum of respect for late-career Woody Allen is about to get even tougher: the director’s latest film “Irrational Man,” even by his patchy recent standards, is an embarrassment. And not of the “of riches” kind. Perhaps there is something interesting in the idea of replaying the thriller-ish, moral-quandary qualities of “Match Point” for light comedy (signalled more by the wearisome repetitive use of jazzy cuts from the Ramsey Lewis Trio rather than by any, you know, jokes) but while that appears to be the formal aim, the result neither thrills nor amuses and so generically ends up in the tragically overpopulated category marked “Woody Allen dramedy misfire” instead. Because depressingly, this is a Woody Allen film and no mistake: the tepid murder plot, the college professor/student relationship, the constant references to Kant and Heidegger and Dostoyevsky, the central character struggling to find meaning while women inexplicably fling themselves at him — these are all as familiar to us as the Windsor EF Elongated typeface he invariably sets his credits in. And what new there is in “Irrational Man” is nothing to brag about — there’s an atypical but disheartening slapdash quality to the filmmaking: dodgy edits, awkward staging, atrociously redundant, charmless voice-over.
Abe Lucas, whose name is for some reason almost always stated in full, arrives to take a teaching post at posh, pretty Braylin College, somewhat preceded by his reputation as a hard living, heartbreaking bad-boy philosopher, because those exist. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, Abe Lucas’ nihilist outlook has brought him to the brink of semi-suicidal, alcoholic despair, which we know because he tells us about it frequently in voice-over. Somehow, this troubled aura makes him all the more attractive to perky student Jill (Emma Stone) who, despite having a very handsome, devoted boyfriend whose sole job is to remind her of how devoted he is, finds she wants more from her blossoming friendship with Abe Lucas. Which we know because she tells us about it frequently in voice-over. But Abe Lucas manfully resists Jill’s frequent come-ons, (and there’s the sneaking sense we are supposed to be amazed by his chivalric self-sacrifice in this regard) until, suddenly energized by a newfound zest for life after he discovers, essentially, his inner sociopath, they start boning anyway. This is despite Abe Lucas having already been boning horny, unhappily married science professor Rita, played by Parker Posey, who although being the film’s MVP by a very long mile cannot save her character from the shocking short shrift Allen’s script deals her.
The revelation Abe Lucas has that transforms his life is prompted by an overheard conversation at a diner at which a woman sobs to her friends about a corrupt family court judge who may award custody of her kids to their no-good dad. Despite Abe Lucas having displayed a fatalistic immunity to almost everything else, this woman’s story makes a deep impression, and in deciding to do something dramatic about it, he rediscovers his joie de vivre and starts to feel like “an authentic human being.” And Abe Lucas’ plight is in this regard worth giving a shit about because Abe Lucas is such a tortured yet original and brilliant intellectual. Which we know because we’re told about it frequently in voice-over.
“He was so damn interesting” is maybe the second thing Stone’s V.O. breathes at us, and the first sign that things are going to go very, very wrong in “Irrational Man.” But in case we miss it, and in all fairness Phoenix is given little opportunity to actually be interesting above morosely quoting 19th century philosophers and playing a spontaneous game of Russian Roulette, she says again a little later, “he’s so damn fascinating and so vulnerable” while dropping awkward comments to her poor doltish boyfriend about how Abe is “so brilliant and so complicated.” So while Jill is billed as being a smart, liberated philosophy student and a talented musician, she is also, according to statements like these and dialogue like “I love that you order for me” during a restaurant scene, a moon-eyed, blithering idiot. Stone is a remarkably appealing actress, and does relish the opportunity to find some more complex notes in Jill later on in the film, but on this evidence we have to hope she has, like Scarlett Johansson, done her time as Woody Allen‘s go-to muse and can move on to projects that actually serve her talents and not just her enormous anime eyes.
Still, her character is a model of consistency compared with that of Abe Lucas whose intellectual and moral arc is actually more of a corkscrew, with a final act turn serving to undercut even more the idea that this was ever a thinking man, let alone that there is any sort of through-line to his patchworky philosophy. And this is the biggest crime that “Irrational Man” commits — it’s not funny enough to be a comedy, not well plotted enough to be a thriller, but it’s also not smart enough to be an actual exploration of all or even any of the many philosophies it, and Abe Lucas, espouses. When there’s a major plot point, whereby Jill discovers his potential criminality because of notes scribbled in the margins of “Crime and Punishment,” you suddenly realize that this is not Allen investigating the questions of morality and ontology that clearly obsess him, this is simply him checklisting them off, one by one. One of the incriminating scribbles reads “Hannah Arendt… ‘THE BANALITY OF EVIL,” but “Irrational Man” proves thoroughly that light comedy can give evil a run for its money in the banality derby.
With something of the feeling that even the stopped clock of Allen’s career has to occasionally show the right time, there’s a tendency to go into each new Allen film desperate to look on the bright side until we’re heralding stuff like “Midnight in Paris” as a “return to form” merely because it’s possible to watch it without wanting to cry. “Blue Jasmine” was at best a flawed film with a striking central performance that came after such a string of duds that everyone rallied around in relief, but even that minor uptick has been followed by the awful “Magic in the Moonlight” and now this thing. As an unyielding, deeply fond fan of many of Allen’s earlier films, some of which have combined homicide and humor to far, far, far greater effect, it gives me no pleasure to ask the question that buzzed through my brain at the end of “Irrational Man”: how long are we going to continue to let Woody Allen get away with murder? [D+]