When Woody Allen outstretches his hand in the direction of irony, his filmmaking goes fatally, abysmally wrong. In the dreadful You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a failed novelist played by Josh Brolin steals a manuscript by an unknown first-time author presumed to be deceased, presents the work as his own, and then learns, as the novel has gone to press, that the supposedly dead writer in fact lies comatose, with an excellent chance for complete recovery. William Sydney Porter might have blushed at the coy cheapness, yet Allen handled the twists and turns with an economy of movement, a glide. In Stranger, however, the stolen novel was but one thread in a movie with at least three narratives overlapping. In Irrational Man, a philosophy professor embarks on murder as a pastime, and the film, which has no distractions from its central story, proceeds at a glacial pace through the inspiration for killing, the extensive plotting from preparations to stalking the victim, and the equally extensive unraveling of the jaded academic’s “perfect” crime.
Irrational Man belongs to the genus of Allen films where one finds Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the deplorable Scoop, and the aforementioned Tall Dark Stranger, as well as such debacles from the 1990s as Celebrity, Sweet & Lowdown, Shadows & Fog, and the positively grating Mighty Aphrodite: that is to say, at the very bottom of the trash heap. Even so, until Irrational Man, I would never have described an Allen film as boring. But this one bores: it is monotonous and one-note throughout, a fault exemplified by the director’s incessant soundtrack cues to Ramsey Lewis’s distastefully jivey misinterpretation of the gospel anthem “Wade in the Water.” What exactly, in Allen’s mind, links an African-American spiritual to a scenario of a desperately overweight white man committing homicide? And I’ve also never heard the word “Bullshit!” bandied about so freely in an Allen film – it’s as if the actors were expressing their true feelings about his script.
Even more damning than all of the above, Irrational Man revives Allen’s use of voice-over: Voice-over that explains every single, solitary thing in front of our eyes. This technique completely killed Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a movie that might have skirted by on the charms of Bardem, Cruz, the scenery were it not for Christopher Evan Welch’s booming baritone gunning everything down. Zak Orth did the same for the much lesser You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, leaving almost no breathing room amidst its squalid vignettes of contemporary London. (That said, a few of the actors did good work: Gemma Jones succeeded at creating a thoroughly and believably annoying eccentric mother, especially in the scene where her daughter berates her, yet Jones holds fast to her quixotic beliefs; Anna Friel had a momentarily invigorating cameo as a struggling painter about to hit it big and the underused Pauline Collins a pleasant one as a cheerful psychic.)
In Irrational Man, Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix take turns telling us – the poor dupes in the audience who simply could not deduce anything of our own accord – precisely what their characters are thinking or feeling in moments when their body language, their eyes, their faces would most certainly have conveyed what Allen’s overly explicit writing renders idiotic. I balk before the phrase “literary sensibility,” because that isn’t what Allen possesses. There’s nothing insightful or poetic in these explanatory prattles. In one scene, Stone stands in front of a majestic tree as she observes at a distance Phoenix on the shore. She looks lovely, her red locks and pale creaminess offset by the dark oak behind her. The cinematographer Darius Khondji achieves an auspiciously primeval look in this shot, and there are sounds of the waves lapping, but Allen destroys nature’s supremacy by his insistence on a voice track of Stone reciting what goes on in her mind as she watches her philosophy professor. Scenes that demand to be played out in silence are read to us. Allen’s voice-over dependency reaches its nadir when Stone picks up Phoenix’s copy of Crime and Punishment; the camera duly records his handwriting on a blank page in the back – the name of the murder victim and “the banality of evil,” as Stone’s voice states, as if we are blind, that the book contains “a quote from Hannah Arendt.”
I cannot quite believe that Allen regards his core audience as a pack of intellectual failures, but I can’t dispute the evidence either. As in Match Point, Allen shovels on Dostoyevsky references to absolutely no illuminating effect.
When it was announced in early 2014 that Allen was making a film about a philosophy professor who has an affair with one of his students and somehow becomes embroiled in murder, I expected a much angrier work than the result. I thought the winter contretemps of Dylan Farrow’s smarmy and gleeful New York Times tirade about the morals of her former stepfather would sneak into the DNA of this film. Yet there’s no fire, no rage in Irrational Man. The movie lacks any particular reason for being. Part of the joy in watching Allen’s good films stems from the way his variations on the same old thing will spin out into new modes of expression; throughout Midnight in Paris and the operatic sequences of To Rome With Love, Allen seemed to be tapping into the nightshade beauty of dream logic. In Irrational Man, when Stone’s supposedly free-thinking college student declares, “I guess I’m not as cutting edge as I thought,” I felt the creak of Allen’s mechanics grinding down to the nub. And when Stone, who was note perfect as the winsome clairvoyant in Magic in the Moonlight, has to switch from being a giddy philosophy major to personifying this film’s stance of High Moral Reason, the curtain rises on her limitations as an actress, and her performance becomes painfully embarrassing. (The director further undermines his leading lady via character-inappropriate product placement. Early on, Stone nibbles a Nestlé Crunch; later, she drinks Coca-Cola. Leaving aside the question of whether Allen’s production company needs these kickbacks, Stone’s Jill doesn’t come across as someone who feasts on sugared-up corporate swill; she’s more like a Raw Revolution and Arden’s Garden kind of gal.)
Why, in a narrative about a murderer who believes he’s performing a public service by killing, is Allen’s version of High Moral Reason at all necessary? Although Phoenix’s victim happens to be a judge on the wrong side of a ruling in a child custody case, there’s nothing in Irrational Man that suggests the Farrows. If the Farrow women saw – and resented – aspects of themselves in Blue Jasmine, then this torpid new film may set their minds at ease: after 4 fluid pictures in a row, which cumulatively suggested a freer disposition for Allen, Irrational Man confirms that the writer-director can still make something completely rigid and control-freak awful.
Allen could take a few storytelling lessons from John Turturro. I loved their work together last year in Fading Gigolo, and Allen’s supporting turn as a pimp who has to defend himself in front of an Orthodox tribunal proved that he still has impeccable timing as an actor. Gigolo’s charm and power, much like in Romance & Cigarettes, drew from Turturro’s innate refusal to underline. (That and the bewitching use of Gene Ammons on the soundtrack.)
Darius Khondji’s photography isn’t as glorious here as his previous collaborations with Allen (nothing has yet surpassed the visual splendor of the great Anything Else). Nonetheless, there are a handful of wide-angle shots that beguile, mostly in the sequences of Stone and Phoenix at an amusement park, strolling across a neon-lit nightscape of ferris wheels and fun rides, followed by her dazzling entrance into a hall of mirrors, light bulbs radiating out in every direction from her slim figure in the center of the frame. The leads boxed in by swirling extras after a chamber music recital in a warmly lit theatre also attains a certain grandeur.
There’s at least one other problem with Irrational Man, a major one: the mumbly Joaquin Phoenix is more or less a disaster in the title role. He’s never been a good actor. His narrow range was used effectively in Buffalo Soldiers; he still had handsomeness then, and it was understandable why the ingénue Anna Paquin and the lonely military wife Elizabeth McGovern wanted to go to bed with him. By the time of James Gray’s worthless Two Lovers, however, Phoenix had lost his looks and whatever spark may have been inside him. It was unbelievable that his prepossessing lady-friends (Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw) were impervious to what a willfully obtuse dissembler and emotional schnorrer Phoenix’s Lenny amounted to. Gray’s film was a wish-fulfillment fantasy for slow-witted narcissistic creeps: the pudgy, vegetative Phoenix seduced both women and gave a performance I had seen somewhere before; by the time of the restaurant scene when Elias Koteas, in flawless Brooklynese, informs Lenny “In truuffff, ya remind me uh my son,” I knew where. From Hi, Mom! to Taxi Driver, Phoenix’s charade upchucked early De Niro.
In Irrational Man, Phoenix, trying on Brando mannerisms, is so fat he looks pregnant. At first I thought the costumer might have propped a pillow under his shirt, yet Allen later has Phoenix loaf around bare-chested for what seems an eternity, long enough to be impaled by his grotesque, quivering mound of protruding belly flesh, a sight even more repellant than Josh Brolin’s unbuttoned flab in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. I didn’t believe it when the faun-like Frieda Pinto fell for Brolin; here, when both Emma Stone and Parker Posey (who has aged to resemble Verna Bloom, though she lacks Bloom’s fine wit and vocal shading) are both desperate for intercourse with Phoenix’s putrid, Scotch-swilling burn-out, Irrational Man induces queasiness. The couplings in this movie have a disgusting quality to them, something that exceeds mere physical revulsion. Is it the emptiness – the absence of anything to respond to beyond the sickening improbabilities? Thirty years ago, Allen nearly did me in with his cruel smashing of Mia Farrow’s dream in The Purple Rose of Cairo. I never imagined then he would make anything as limp as Irrational Man, a murder movie that’s curiously afraid of brutality. – N.P. Thompson
August 9, 2015