Irrational Man

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, Melinda & Melinda, 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.

Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

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.)

Irrational2

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

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Our media culture learned nothing from Aurora

In the small hours of the morning that the Jonah Lehrer scandal broke, I had devoted a little time in crafting a letter to the editor of The New Yorker magazine re the Aurora, Colorado multiplex massacre. My letter went unpublished. Possibly, it went unread altogether, given the excitement inherent to the Lehrer saga. Once again, a major publication had hired a haircut in drag as a man. Naturally, the bold and unflinching cannot hope to compete with that.

Over the past two weeks, however, the story of the Aurora shootings has receded from public purview awfully fast. The story goes on—and will go on—for the injured. The industry apologists, the herd mentality do-nothings, the mewling press screening junkies, who kept sweeping away any possible interpretation of media culpability for the killings, appear to have won another round for their status quo.

So, then, here’s what I had to say to Messrs. Remnick, Denby, and company:

Letter to the Editor, The New Yorker

Regarding David Denby’s essay, “The Massacre in Aurora: Can You Blame the Movies?” the answer to his rhetorical question is overwhelmingly yes. One can, one may; one should.

The author writes: “But when I talked to some very smart young friends about it, the … perverse cruelty was exactly what they thought was cool. For them, the dissociation from emotion freed an aesthetic response to extreme acts, to beauty.” One wishes to suggest to Mr. Denby that these “very smart young friends” are not nearly as savvy as he allows himself to imagine. The very reliance on disassociated thrill-seeking as an acceptable reaction to gratuitous violence on-screen (indeed, as the only response conceivable to these callous young people), of viewing simulated violent acts solely in terms of aesthetics, pretty much betrays intellectual failure and a total lack of emotional intelligence. In other words, their hipster viewpoint is a cop-out.

Four summers ago when I panned The Dark Knight, one of the chief shortcomings of the movie, it seemed perfectly plain, was that the violence on incessant display connected to nothing. Christopher Nolan’s endless acts of death and terrorism were presented blandly—without a sense of horror or outrage, let alone grief. The bombs detonate, the buildings combust, the triggers pull, and what are we, gathered there in the dark, expected to think or feel? Are we afraid? No. Angry? No. Empathy? Definitely not. Or how about a sense of triumph? No, not that either. And with the possible exception of The Joker “making a pencil disappear” in an early scene, none of The Dark Knight’s assembly line sadism seemed to be geared for snickering guffaws.

So Nolan denies us laughter, horror, fear, sadness, pity—more or less the entire spectrum of what even lovers of trash might want to have evoked for them. What then is the desired response?

The Dark Knight amounted to a peculiarly bad kind of porno film, a porno film that Continue reading “Our media culture learned nothing from Aurora”

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Overall, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives doesn’t surpass his previous work, the near-masterpiece Syndromes and a Century. The problems that cropped up in the second half of Syndromes are here as well. In both movies, the writer-director leaves a hazy, rural district behind for contemporary urban settings. The cinematic heart so prevalent in country life yields to the filmmaker’s less than original observation that modern life is shallow and enervated. Weerasethakul needs to move beyond this, because it hobbles him as an artist and leaves you/me/us empty and cold at the end of his work—when we should still be privy to the elation in which he earlier held us tight.

In Uncle Boonmee, Weerasethakul exercises his shaman-like gift for enveloping us in a dream-state further than he has before. The ease with which the director gets the viewer to accept a ghost wife keeping company her very much alive husband (draining his diseased kidney and dressing the wound, while placidly answering his questions re the afterlife) narcotizes the right audiences who are intellectually, spiritually hungry for someone’s—anyone’s—insight into where our essence goes when the body’s thrown away, and so it’s with resentment that Continue reading Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Savaging two Colin Firth movies for the price of . . .

Why I've avoided The King's Speech. Until now.

More than a year after seeing it, I remain so thoroughly appalled by the memory of Tom Ford’s gay victimhood hatchet job on the Isherwood novella A Single Man that I cannot forgive Colin Firth for his participation in the Ford debacle. As the lead actor, Firth ought to have had acquaintance enough with the source material to raise objections to Ford’s gutting of the author’s intent. Firth, however, went along for the whitewash.

Let’s see if I can remember, without recourse to the notes I took for an unwritten review, some of the reasons why A Single Man stood not only as the most loathsome movie of 2009, but very likely as the most incompetent literary adaptation of all-time.

To begin with, as I finished reading the book the night before I attended a press screening, I thought, “This is unfilmable.” Isherwood’s interior creation would require someone with a powerful visual imagination—or perhaps a radio dramatist—to translate the work from the mind to the collective experience. It seemed unlikely that a fashion plate turned first-time filmmaker would have such dexterity, yet as long as Ford was faithful to the events of the novella, the movie might still be sufficiently compelling. Except that Ford wasn’t faithful at all. He cheapened and degraded and trashed Isherwood, emptying the book of any idea or recognizable human feeling that it contained. Ford’s Single Man opined for the era of televised cigarette commercials; it comported itself with all the gusto of soft-core gay porn, a dumbing-down for well-dressed illiterates with a hard-on for their own consumerism.

Isherwood’s novella had two Asian characters. Surely there were at least two Asian Americans in southern California of the early 1960s. Ford omitted one of these and cast a blonde white as the other. He did away with most of the work’s site specificity and eliminated all of the novelist’s environmental concerns that related to a constantly expanding Los Angeles. (George, the protagonist, mourned the loss of the landscape to sub-divisions; Ford, one senses, would have gone out for drinks with the developers.) The novice writer-director turned Isherwood’s meticulously drawn, deliberately ambiguous supporting character Kenny into a totally obvious fag in angora. At the end of the book, George, played in the film by the overrated Colin Firth, dies in his sleep sans warning. Ford grafted onto the narrative an insulting deus ex machina in which George carried around a revolver all day, intent on committing suicide, but then perishes of a heart attack ere he can squeeze the trigger. Whew, the audience didn’t have to think for itself! If Ford’s liberties with the text weren’t straight out of the Donald Kaufman School of Acme Screenwriting, then what would’ve been?

Even more offensive than all of the above, however, was Continue reading “Savaging two Colin Firth movies for the price of . . .”

Not an introduction.

“Your writing elicits for me a much appreciated sense of flux, a view in a state of change, as well as a much more luminous sense of being, the joys of expression, of living itself, like a wonderfully played piano piece . . . a true delight to receive/perceive.”

The above quote hails from a reader in Washington, DC, written in 1995, seven years before I began publishing movie criticism from a blissfully isolated outpost on the Olympic Peninsula. As an ex-radio DJ, I started off with the intention of being a music reviewer—movies were merely a contagious afterthought; when invites first trickled in during the late summer and autumn of ‘02, I was the only hobbyist who thought it might be fun to spend a day taking six buses and two ferry boats to Seattle and back just to attend private screenings for press or anyone else who had even a wisp of press credentials.

The lady from DC wrote in response to my musings on jazz, which I posted to a bulletin board in the days of the Internet’s comparative infancy, and which were as pointedly opinionated and (sometimes) as scathing as any of my subsequent assessments of the overrated trash we call cinema.

She and I became correspondents in the virtual realm of our real lives. She was my ideal reader: she “got” every nuance and inflection—the traits that went beyond shared passions for the singers Sheila Jordan and Abbey Lincoln, or for the saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, that went to, in a paraphrase of Willa Cather, the light behind the prose and the living quality in the sentences.

I like to think that my writing about film—and later about books and the visual arts—has, at its best, much in common with my off-the-cuff extemporizations on jazz: chiefly, that my work is informed, engaging, and coruscatingly entertaining in its own right (always in the service, never at the expense, of the so-called art under consideration).

Continue reading “Not an introduction.”

Cinco de Mayo at the Robischon Gallery

Yours truly attended Wednesday’s opening reception at the Robischon on Wazee for DAM Contemporaries’ Summer Salon series. The galleries were overflowing with revelers, the wines were exquisite, and the gourmet nibbles, particularly the expertly disguised tempeh-circulars in piping hot marinara, were well worth several trips to the buffet table. Denver style being what it is, I was the best-dressed man there, at least from the socks down, in my LL Bean Indigo Aspens.

As for the art, since all of it was contemporary, most of the work on display was quite bad. The paintings managed to be undistinguished; the photogs, however, were memorable, even if for less than stellar reasons.

Best of the lot was Bill Armstrong’s Blue Sphere series, a quartet of soft/cool C-prints influenced by Kandinsky’s “spiritual color theory,” according to Mr. Armstrong’s notes. David Sharpe’s trio of pinhole blow-ups Eastern Phenomena also gave the eyes and the mind something to dwell on. These wide-screen canvases (42 x 63 in.) were, naturally, dimmed around the perimeters, lending his panoramas of East Colorado landscapes (migrant workers facing the viewer in one, unattended parasols by a lake in another) an uncertain sensation of peering through slowly focusing binoculars.

And the worst? Hands down, Li Wei’s paean to the global fixation on “stupide,” a set of self-portraits in which the artist depicts himself being decapitated in various ways. China, I think, is pretty much dead at this point, vis-à-vis the visual arts, as anyone who read my ACAF ’08 write-up won’t be surprised to learn.

Still, despite the lack of anything Mexican, ‘twas a nice whiling away of a twilit Cinco de Mayo. — NPT

May 7, 2010

Redacted from Salon‘s Oscar coverage

My ultra-brief tenure at Salon.com came to a screeching halt with the non-publication of this, my third and final short piece for the play-it-safe-unless-it’s-vulgar online rag. I didn’t bother to watch the Academy Awards ceremony (I haven’t for several years), yet when Andrew O’Hehir asked the correspondents of “Film Salon” to chime in with their respective 2 cents, I penned the following. The timid O’Hehir refused to run my commentary, preferring instead a collage of totally unmemorable opinions, none of which have stood the test of time. Shortly thereafter, the democratic atmosphere of “Film Salon” bit the dust. Instead of being home to divergent voices, it became the near-exclusive enclave of O’Hehir and his hamfisted-buffoon-in-arms, the much beloved (though not terribly perceptive or eloquent) Matt Zoller Seitz. Leaving aside — for the nonce — how being a popular critic amounts to being no critic at all — here is what the rest of you were denied the opportunity to read:

Suggested headline: After party turns deadly when Streep whacks Bullock with a French silk.

No, but seriously, Andrew, the best picture win by Hurt Locker feels as though it were decreed by our betters at Halliburton, as a means of conditioning sheep-like Americans into acceptance of an endless state of war as the new “norm.” Obama hasn’t and won’t do anything to right the wrongs of the Cheney/Bush legacy he inherited; the Republican who’ll be elected President in 2012 won’t either. This anointing of the apolitcal Hurt Locker, a movie essentially about guys just doing their jobs, thus indicates the futility of questioning why — why, why, why those jobs need to be done in the first place. In laymen-speak, it’s about keeping the U.S. economy permanently crippled, stupid, while the patriotic myth that our military keeps America “safe” waxes mindlessly, senselessly on. Ask anybody who’s ineligible for unemployment benefits how safe he or she feels knowing that our boys are blowing stuff up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the capacious topic of mindlessness, Academy members who voted for the reptilian-faced Republi-sweetie Sandra Bullock were more or less voting for her cleavage. It would have been nice to see Streep win, and to win for a comedy, no less. Sandy, at least, ought to have had the good taste to remember John Simon in her acceptance speech. Without his praise for her off-Broadway endeavors 22 years ago, she might still—deservedly—be waiting tables. — NPT

March 8, 2010