Movie a Day Blog sees Woody Allen, aging but still regularly churning out a movie a year, as the Yo-Yo Man of contemporary cinema: up with one film, down with the next.
His latest, IRRATIONAL MAN (2015, Theatrical) is somewhere in between the recent extremes of BLUE JASMINE (2013) and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011, Movie a Day 6/20/11), the successful films, and TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012, Movie a Day 7/3/12) and MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014, Movie a Day 11/19/14), two of his worst.
The main reason IRRATIONAL MAN succeeds at all, and the point can be argued, is the performance of Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role of an updated Humbert Humbert from Nabokov’s “Lolita” to the small college town Allen posits in Rhode Island, where Phoenix has relocated to teach a summer philosophy class.
Phoenix is the most consistently interesting American actor to watch on screen; even when his characters don’t clearly emerge (the acolyte in THE MASTER (2012) is the most glaring example), he’s riveting to watch. Every tic and gesture is thought out and helps develop the character.
In IRRATIONAL MAN Phoenix carries an unexpected pot belly on his last academic legs, having lost whatever serious interest he ever possessed in philosophy, and finds himself too depressed to even be an existentialist.
After almost 50 feature films, you can’t blame Allen for running out of narrative gas, so he borrows liberally from Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” for much of the plot in IRRATIONAL MAN. It’s easy to spot, so it’s painful and awkward for Allen to not only show us the novel in the movie, but even the marginalia that the perfect criminal Phoenix haswritten in his textbook.
Yes, this is yet another cinematic attempt at the perfect crime, although Phoenix’s character makes some stupid mistakes that even an alcoholic academic might have avoided.
Providing a running commentary, first of adoration and then revulsion, is Emma Stone. It’s unfortunate that Allen poses her co-ed character in the shortest skirts possible, and then expects you to pay attention to her long monologues when all you’re really thinking about is what’s going to be revealed.
Stone, who is a talented actress often as good as her director (see BIRDMAN (2014, Movie a Day 11/10/14), but here she’s as imbalanced as the movie in her portrayal of a naive college student who suddenly becomes a homicide investigator. Stone looks willing to do anything her director tells her to (MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT is a sad example), but Allen is on familiar but shaky ground with his portrayals of young ingenues.
You can think what you want of Allen morally, and for plenty of people, myself included, his behavior with his adopted children is highly questionable. Therefore, when he continually presents characters who have to be initiated into life sexually and culturally by a neurotic older male, the uncomfortable feelings only multiply.
Allen can’t seem to let this theme go, and he’s done more variations on it than seems possible, beginning with MANHATTAN (1979, Movie a Day 1/8/12) and continuing now through IRRATIONAL MAN.
It seems perfectly OK with all concerned that Phoenix routinely has a physical affair with one of his undergraduate students; other faculty, her parents, the entire college community just nods in agreement, at least in the Woody Allen universe.
He also has a fling with Parker Posey, who gives one of the best performances in the movie, but why hang with her when he can have Emma Stone?
While there is an unexpected payoff to a mundane object that made me smile at the end, IRRATIONAL MAN ultimately leaves kind of a bad taste in your mouth. Phoenix, as he regains his moxie and finds purpose in his life, becomes a more obnoxious character, too.
Allen doesn’t have the bite or the depth in this film that Stanley Kubrick brought to his adaptation of Nabokov’s LOLITA (1962). That may be a high standard to hold a filmmaker to, but when you’re Woody Allen and you’ve made 50 films, you ought to expect it.