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.)