At times like these — the advent of the yearly New Woody Allen Movie — one wonders about the struggle of the Allen neophyte, unsuspectingly attending one of his new films on a date, having no experience with his previous work whatsoever; maybe it’s the only thing at the local theater.
What would he or she make of it? How subpar and weirdly out-of-touch would it seem? Would it even make sense? Maybe it would just blend in with the multitude of B-grade indie, character-driven dramadies that move through our local arthouse theaters on the regular, lingering for a couple of weeks. “Okay, here we go,” they might think twenty minutes in, “a new film by some dude trying to mate the sensibilities of Rob Reiner and the fluffier Coen Brothers. Wasn’t great.”
But I assume, at this point, that most of the people who go to Woody Allen movies go because they have seen other Woody Allen movies. This is also how Bob Dylan sells his new albums. Thus, their viewing experience of these late-period ritualistic movies– which it feels always like Allen makes to remind himself that he is alive and truckin’, to keep his day-to-day structured through constant work — is tied inextricably to their understanding of his more universally beloved catalogue of the late ‘60s, ‘70s, and, to a lesser extent, ‘80s.
The more in-depth your knowledge of the past Allen, the worse it feels taking a spin in one of his new models. Woody Allen’s movies of the past decade have gotten more serious, and certainly self-serious, than the lighter fare of the early ‘00s. Even in more recent absurdist jaunts like Midnight in Paris, the pseudo-intellectual and referential pretensions lie on the surface more than they did in his great goofball flicks of old (Love and Death, Sleeper, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex… etc.) The references were thoroughly played for laughs; they were also garnish, not the center, of the films.
His recent work (well, that of the past couple of decades) digs further into increasingly into his career-long obsessions with Bergman films, Dostoyevsky and, you know, Freud (less and less). If it’s not one of those, it’s some other literary source material; even 2013’s Blue Jasmine, possibly his best film in years, was essentially a interpolation of Streetcar Named Desire, in the mode of a summer-stock Shakespeare production with contemporary time sets and costumes.
The bigger issue, though, is that so many of Woody Allen’s new films seem to be assembled from bits (or big swatches) of previous Woody Allen films. Insomuch as these films feel new, it is thanks to the crews of actors he puts together, but by now even inspired performances by big names have become traditional and unsurprising.
Allen’s latest, Irrational Man, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone and surprise special guest Parker Posey, is no exception to these rules. First and foremost, it’s the culmination of a Crime and Punishment obsession Allen has had for decades; the ubiquitous novel is, in essence, the archetype for the story – at least in the film’s second half. The self-conscious, morally conflicted murderer is essential to both 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and 2005’s Matchpoint, and you’ll find it other places too if you dig deeper. The relationship between younger woman and older man, of course, is everywhere in his catalogue – that almost goes without saying. But more specifically, Stone’s wide-eyed pupil Jill Pollard and Phoenix philosophy professor Abe Lucas’ relationship as infatuated student and vulnerable, self-effacing, intellectually superior, and sexually irresistible professor is straight out of Allen’s Bergman-aping 1992 film Husbands and Wives. Posey’s troubled science professor, – also infatuated with Phoenix – engages in the casual infidelity which is an almost uninterrupted fixture in the Woody catalogue.
To be more specific, the film is half-Nabokovian academic love story, half downward-spiral yarn revolving around Phoenix’s professor’s existential dread and possible mental illness. Ultimately, to deal with these irritatingly nebulous issues, he decides to murder a noxious judge, to which he has no known connection (Supposedly, this will better the life of a golden-heart stranger, a middle-aged woman he overhears complaining about the judge’s corrupt misdeeds in a restaurant). Once he has committed this concretely “meaningful act” (with cyanide in the judge’s post-workout OJ cup), Phoenix experiences a renewed lust for life; his previous Schadenfreude and impotency is cured. However, thanks to little slips (very uncreative plotting — he’s seen leaving at an odd hour of the morning, he predicts accidentally the time of poision, he’s seen stealing it from the chem lab, etc.), he’s caught, even though he believed it was the perfect crime. Yes, it’s straight-up Raskolnikov, folks.
Irrational Man is very self-consciously designed as a light dark comedy. The only issue is that it is plateaus at Love Guru levels of unfunny; the intended humor is hardly locatable, though you know it’s meant to be there. This is probably because Phoenix is almost too good of an actor for the script. He’s clearly playing against the emphases of the lines to some extent, attempting to give them a natural, haphazard emphasis and hiding the normal hyper-staginess that beleaguers Allen screenplays. In other words, he refuses to be Allen’s stand-in, which is almost impossible to avoid for leading men in recent films (Allen wisely bowed out of this role a little bit after that time he tried to make us believe Charlize Theron had the head-over-heels hots for him). If there are jokes here, he refuses to deliver them. What humor there is comes in his odd facial tics, and his perpetual intoxication through the better part of the film.
The real comic hero here is Posey, as the jaded professor in need of a change – who sees Phoenix and his free spirit as a magic carpet that can carry her far from the throes of her tedious, loveless marriage. Posey plays this appropriately farcically, and she is a master of acute comic timing. Stone has her moments as well, but the unfortunate thing about both of these women’s roles is how far they fall (even by Allen’s standards) from passing the Bechdel test: That is, there is hardly at moment in the film where either female character is not discussing or hyperbolically pining after Professor Lucas, the dominant male lead. Their unrelenting obsession is central to their characters; without it, they hardly exist. We know little about Stone’s Jill, who gets the same amount of screen time as Joaquin, other than the fact that she is a good student and plays the piano well (if a bit woodenly). It feels almost disturbingly short-sighted – even for Allen – to have not tried to do even marginally better with these characters, assigned to such skilled actresses (it’s impossible to imagine how they would have been carried by Allen’s former, less adaptable muse ScarJo – but you can check out Vicki Cristina Barcelona to get some idea).
At least, Irrational Man is lighter than Allen’s normal dramatic fare, and not as suffocatingly silly and dud-filled as something like Scoop. The ending (Joaquin’s demise) is also a clever touch, which I won’t spoil here, in case you are somehow moved to see this film. But like so many others, it features all the touchstones that it seems, by this very late point in his career, Allen will never be able to move beyond.