Irrational Man

Irrational Man
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Jamie Blackley, Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey and Emma Stone
In UK Cinemas September 11th, 2015

by Michael Anderson

Although not an adaptation, the latest from Woody Allen’s production line shares its title with William Barrett’s 1958 book, which sought to introduce existentialism to the English-speaking world. Allen fancies his film to do likewise: powerful notions of the bleakness of life and aesthetics of death, cunningly Trojan Horsed into Hollywood via bankable stars and his customary directorial lightness of touch. The prospect is not unenticing, Allen’s wryly-expressed obsession with his own mortality never far from the surface throughout his career – “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying”, as he famously wrote – and now perhaps ripe for an explicit late-career exploration as he writes and directs toward his ninth decade.

Abe Lucas is a maverick, notorious philosophy professor – we all know the type – arriving at a liberal New England college with writers’ block and a hip flask. He has big, literary problems: bored with life, bored with death, bored with the “theoretical world of philosophical bullshit” which he hates himself for propagating to yet another class of well-meaning disappointments. But then an essay disagreeing with some of his ideas catches the eye and sparks a close friendship with student Jill Pollard. Their wanderings and paper-thin ruminations on life and, y’know, stuff conspire with pointedly random occurrences to reveal a leftfield solution to Abe’s ennui.

Allen has made worse films than this but few as irritating. The fundamentally unreal Woody-ness of all Allen films means you could forgive the glib New England setting and cod-academic dialogue if leavened by some spark of life elsewhere. The latest star to tick the director off his bucket list, Joaquin Phoenix is surely just the ticket, still just about riding his idiosyncratic wave of mumbly post-exile charisma. Unfortunately though his efforts to convey Abe’s feckless dissatisfaction amount to wholesale detachment from the film itself, flat delivery and glassy eyes conveying a genuine sense of cinematic boredom and spectacularly failing to provide the antiheroic appeal the narrative cries out for. As Jill, meanwhile, Emma Stone proves her turn as kooky clairvoyant in Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight was no flash in the pan, continuing her hot streak of unfeasibly grating characters – only this time, she has a voiceover. (Run. Run for the hills.) Combined with a soundtrack comprising a single lounge-jazz piano motif repeated at different tempos (simplistic, even for Allen) and the thought occurs that perhaps this is all an in-joke: meta-cinematic water-torture nudging the audience to eye-clawing, ear-blocking depths of hitherto unexplored existential despair. If so then it is an exquisite success.

The film is not without merit. There is a scattering of usual Allen one-liners, one or two surprisingly cinematic tracking shots, and Parker Posey brings all the heart and spark in an underwritten role as a fellow professor with whom Abe has various entanglements. But the overriding feeling – beyond sublime irritation – is one of opportunity missed, more so than the usual late-Allen tepidity: a feeling of potential frustratingly unrealised for something which speaks to Allen’s soul in the way that jazz age capers and European wanderings never will. Allen will of course keep making films until he physically no longer can, but it is doubtful he will ever stray quite so close to home. Fare thee well, Woody. See you next year.


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