Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” — Murder and Desire Have Never Been Less Interesting

AUGUST 13, 2015

irrationalIt was the same ritual every year.  A group of us would meet to see the latest Woody Allen film together on Opening Day.  We would wander over to the upper East Side of Manhattan (deep in the heart of Woody Allen Land) to a tony theater (usually the Beekman), watch the latest opus and argue about it for hours afterward.

These were the primo Allen years, the “Annie Hall”/”Manhattan” years.  I would even include his drama “Interiors” as primo, though for that film I got brutally shouted down by the group that opening night. (Some things you never forget.)

Over the years, Allen has proved to be worked hard to remain relevant — it’s amazing that America’s two most prolific filmmakers, Allen and Clint Eastwood, are aged 79 and 85 respectively. But recently the quality of Allen’s work has become more miss than hit.  Yes, there’s “Match Point,” but that was immediately followed by the forgettable “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream.”  (Remember?  I didn’t think so.)  “Vicky Christina Barcelona” led to “Whatever Works” and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.” (Anyone?)  Now after the sharp “Blue Jasmine,” Allen has offered “Magic in the Moonlight,” (Allen in failed whimsical mode) and “Irrational Man” (which is Allen at his most philosophical, not always a good thing).

Here, Joaquin Phoenix plays an actual philosopher, Abe Lucas, who comes to teach at a posh Rhode Island college.  Abe is at his low point, drunk and impotent, when he is drawn (as Allen’s heroes inevitably are) to a much younger woman, one of his students (Emma Stone).  Also eyeing Abe is a faculty colleague (Parker Posey, with the film’s only good performance) who sees him as a ticket out of her loveless marriage.

Neither woman is able to stimulate Abe until he stumbles onto the idea of murder, killing a stranger for a noble social cause.  Suddenly he’s sober and erect and all is right with the world, until there are consequences.  We are clearly in the territory of Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” but “Irrational Man” doesn’t even begin to approach the moral complexities of that earlier masterpiece.  The ideas just aren’t there.   It feels half-hearted, almost a throw-away.

This isn’t one of Phoenix’s better performances.  His almost-mumblecore style of speaking is at odds with the precision of Allen’s writing.  (Granted, it’s not great dialogue, but it is precise.)  And this is the second film in a row that Allen has criminally misused the gifts of Emma Stone.  In both “Magic” and here, she is playing essentially the same character — the young love interest who discovers that her beloved is not on the up and up. She throws everything she has at this character, but the material is simply missing.

The only positive from “Irrational Man” is that Woody Allen’s pattern seems to be that two duds are inevitably followed by a home run.  Summer 2016 will be here soon.  We’re waiting, Woody.