Woody Allen cut his scriptwriting teeth on plays like “Don’t Drink the Water” and “Play it Again, Sam,” and the fifty movies he has made over the past half-century very often seem like plays on film. Sometimes the fact that his characters talk so much reads to contemporary audiences as dull or slow-paced, particularly when the films come out in the summer and when most other movies out have virtually no dialog and a whole lot of chases, explosions, and occasional one-liners that are the only tiny clues we get of character.
For a number of viewers, Allen’s tumultuous personal life (for what now amounts to some two decades) is inseparable from his films, and there is a tendency to see each succeeding film as another attempt to justify or at least to rationalize his own life choices and obsessions. The fact that his films so often revolve around young women in relationships with older men lends credence to these critics.
Thirdly, inevitably, Allen is going to be compared to himself, and yes, like most artists, he tends to repeat particular motifs. One of these, of course, is the unorthodox older man who is probably a misunderstood genius, and the young ingénue who is attracted to him—a motif that is at the center of Allen’s newest film, “Irrational Man.” The film also explores another of Allen’s favorite themes: the abstract idea of the perfect murder that becomes very, very concrete.
“Irrational Man” was released a month ago, and plenty reviews of the film have already been published, some of which have been very positive, but more of which have found the film unsuccessful, generally for one of the previous three reasons: the film is slow paced and nothing happens for the first half hour; the film is just Allen trying to rationalize his own sleazy situation; or the film is just a mishmash of favorite Allen motifs that he explored more successfully in previous movies. Opinions of the actors vary wildly: many critics praise the three principal characters (Joachim Phoenix, Parker Posey, and Emma Stone) for their performances, many particularly singling out Phoenix as a convincingly disheveled, suicidal professor. But other critics have complained that the actors are unconvincing and that the script is confused and the dialog stilted, one significant critic—Lou Lumenick of the New York Post—calling the film “the nadir of the 79-year-old director’s career” (one wonders whether Lumenick has seen 2012’s “To Rome with Love”).
But seriously folks, go to this movie and pretend that it was written and directed by somebody you’ve never heard of—let’s call him Allan Stewart Konigsberg—and watch it without preconceptions. You’ll find the characters sad but interesting, the plot twists surprising, and the tone of the film sardonic—darkly humorous in some places, horrifying at others until, like Emma Stone in the end, you may pull back from the abyss before it’s too late.
In a nutshell, the story focuses on a brilliant but erratic philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Phoenix), who is well-known in his field but mysteriously takes a job at a small liberal arts college in Newport, Rhode Island—the fictitious Braylin College. Rumors abound on campus among both faculty and students before he ever appears, and when he does show up, he is clearly burnt out, alcoholic, and disillusioned about the entire educational endeavor, and about his discipline in particular. In the snippets we get from his classroom, we see him debunking Kant and Kierkegaard, though he does insist at one point, tellingly, that he thinks Dostoevsky “got it.” Our lessons should come from life, he insists, and not from textbooks.
Somehow Abe, in his morose, pot-bellied, scruffy embodiment of existential angst, proves irresistible to chemistry professor Rita Richards (Posey), as well as to his eager, promising young student Jill Pollard (Stone). As the film goes on, though, we learn, as does Rita, that Abe’s despair has not made him simply intellectually impotent. And, with Jill, we also learn he is suicidal. He needs something to bring him back to life. By sheer chance, he overhears a conversation about a terrible wrong he believes he can right through a radical existential act—the perfect murder of a complete stranger. An act that completely turns him around intellectually, emotionally, and physically. In the end, things turn out differently from what he, or any of the other characters, expect, and the role of chance in our lives (as opposed to philosophical speculation) is underscored. The film is thought-provoking and well-acted, and stands on its own merits.
Yes, Martin Landau had a similar experience in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as did Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in “Match Point.” But the motives are quite different, Abe’s being completely intellectual. And the results are quite different. And yes, Juliet Lewis came on to her professor just as irresistibly in “Husbands and Wives,” but she is a completely different character. Some things in the film are a bit fantastic—Allen’s experience of university life was certainly at no school I’ve ever been associated with, since faculty offices here are more lavish than those of most university presidents, and faculty homes suggest salaries far beyond those of any real university employees except perhaps for football coaches. Add to this the fact that Abe walks around campus sucking on a flask of single-malt Scotch, and that he and his student Jill engage in PDAs all over campus without any figure in authority even commenting.
On the other hand, there are brilliant little touches in the film that bear close scrutiny. Pay attention to Abe’s back story: we learn about it only through rumors, and through his own occasional comments, but his comments never mesh with one another. His best friend seems to have died, apparently in Iraq—or is it Afghanistan? And was he blown up, or beheaded, or did he in fact run off with Abe’s ex-wife? Can you really trust anything he says? Or does he simply think that his past, like his ethics, is all about words, and what he can convince people to believe?
Watch the clothes. Other movies you ever see use a change of scenes as a new opportunity to add new wardrobe items. But in this film, people wear a lot of the same clothes in different scenes—like real people, who can’t afford new clothes every day (though these people CAN afford really expensive houses). And then there is Jill and her long-suffering boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley), who get each other sweaters for their birthdays. It’s completely practical—but Jill at one point is appalled that Abe might think her “practical.” Roy seems dull, of course, compared with Abe, but it may turn out dull is actually a good thing.
And, of course, music is always interesting in an Allen movie. Jazz tends to be his go-to genre, and here, the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s ’60’s classic “The In Crowd” plays over many of the film’s scenes. What’s THAT about? Is it part of the film’s sardonic humor? Is being with Abe like being with the “cool kids” for Jill? Is that why she is so infatuated with him?
Food for thought. As much of “Irrational Man” is. I do recommend that you give this movie a chance. I’ll give it three Tennysons. See what YOU think.