Early on in Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s latest half-narcotized attempt to dramatically grapple with a philosophically tinged moral crisis, a fellow academic tells Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), “I loved your essay on situational ethics.” Abe, being a newly appointed professor/radical free thinker to the philosophy department of a picturesque Rhode Island college and himself awash in career disillusionment and an existential dilemma involving writer’s block, smiles and nods appreciatively and noncommittally.
However, the audience may consider the Big Theme bell well and truly rung. Allen, who would never be so satisfied with a single easy proclamation of achievement, pads the first half of the movie with apparently awe-inspired compliments from fellow professors, administrators and students directed toward Abe’s prodigious intellect—his reputation doth well precede him, and he knows it. And you can bet that every classroom scene will be occasion to name-drop the heavy hitters-- Kant! Heidegger! Dickinson!-- in order to properly season the ground for the harvest of deep-dish themes and the big plot twist to come. (There is occasional unintentional comedy, however-- the way Phoenix wraps his lips around “Simone de Beauvoir,” you’d think he was one of his own wide-eyed, marble-mouthed students.)
This being a Woody Allen movie, Abe is also, despite his alcoholism, impotence and a general indifference to his well-heeled surroundings, quite the ladies’ man. He not only catches the eye of the campus’s resident nymphomaniac, a fellow hard-drinking, unhappily married chemistry teacher named Rita (Parker Posey, who flits in and out of the movie with such tippled, oddball grace and comic timing that you wish the movie were about her), but also that of Jill (Emma Stone), one of Abe’s students.
Jill, an under-imagined character who gets little chance to illuminate Allen’s universe the way Stone did in his widely dismissed Magic in the Moonlight, is intellectually curious and independent. Abe compliments her latest essay by saying that her ideas were freshest and most stimulating when in disagreement with his. But Allen can’t find much room in his dramatic strategy for her to display that intellectual independence within the constraints of the plot—she’s too busy being fascinated by this obviously troubled, yet strangely magnetic genius. (“He’s so self-destructive, but he’s so brilliant,” she coos, rationalizing her infatuation after witnessing Abe’s drunken spin with Russian roulette, which in every world but this one would have resulted in him being ousted from this picturesque academic posting.) Jill also plays the piano-- good for lending the movie a further air of Bach-sweetened cul-cha-- and she has an easily dominated boyfriend whom she dumps in order to pursue her unlikely relationship with the prof, again, this being a Woody Allen movie.
Points to Allen for indicating early on that this particular May-December romance is a dead end, even though Jill batting her lashes at Abe is not the instance of situational ethics the director is concerned with here. For its first half Irrational Man spins its wheels within the hermetically sealed world of academia, and within the even more hermetically sealed world of romantic entanglements vis-à-vis the cinema of Woody Allen. But a seemingly random development kicks off the second act’s hard right turn, which sets up the question Allen is really (sort of) interested in: Is it possible to positively rationalize the commission of a seemingly irredeemable act? And if you got away with it, would you really be getting away with it?
So what happens next? By the time the worm turns, you may welcome the development for the sprinkle of action it provides amidst a sea of talk. Or you may not care quite as much as Allen thinks you should. For all of his attraction to the signposts of genre, Allen seems to look down upon using his filmmaking to encourage the audience to respond to the situations he concocts as anything other than diagrammed insects pinned and wriggling under glass. He films decisive moments of activity from the same placid distance as he observes the clucking and chattering of an academics mixer, almost as if Allen having posed his philosophical queries is quite enough, thank you. It’s this apparent directorial indifference, the high-minded shuffling aside of some of the low places his scenarios end up taking us, and the undeniable pace at which he continues to crank them out, which suggests that for Allen storytelling in movies may be less a calling than a compulsion.
And his actors aren’t left with much better. Phoenix couldn’t be less convincing, except in his lethargy, I suppose, as a besotted professor whose days of social activism have been subsumed by the sort of depressed solipsism that can only lead to implosion. We need to find Abe as magnetic as Jill and Rita do, to find something outside the margins to make us believe he isn’t an entirely lost cause. But that would require Allen giving Phoenix something of depth to play, and the acclaimed writer-director simply coasts on providing familiar clichés of existential dilemma for his lead actor to chew on. Stone is asked to coast as well on her natural charm, which can never approach answering why someone so young and smart isn’t formulating the sorts of questions about Abe that should send her flying back into the comforting arms of her dull boyfriend and the possibility of a future.
Only Posey manages to hint at a (screwed-up) life off-screen. She seems to be operating gloriously independent of the director’s puppet strings here, and she lights the movie up in the same way that Maureen Stapleton did Interiors, without having to function as the movie’s symbolic life force. The way Rita/Posey impatiently blows off Allen’s clunky attempt to update her, and the audience, on the developing plot (“I don’t have time for a crazy story right now. But I’ll see you soon, okay?”) makes her the audience’s truest representative, as well as the character most worth caring about. If only Allen had the time.
I must admit, an understanding of the praises and honors awarded to Woody Allen during this most recent renaissance of interest in his career, starting with Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), on to the stillborn You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), the occasionally charming but unsatisfying Midnight In Paris (2011), the maddening To Rome with Love (2012) and up through this latest dud, largely escapes me. And I may never forgive him for Whatever Works (2009), as terminal a comedy as he has ever made, or Blue Jasmine (2013), which convinced me Allen had completely lost touch with the day-to-day details of how the world and society actually functions. All of those movies have their defenders (well, maybe not You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger), with three Oscars sprinkled among those titles, if that matters, for two of his actresses and for the writer Allen himself. And I have no doubt each one of those previously mentioned are precisely the films Allen intended to make. So what do I know?
Well, I know that I could barely contain my disregard for most of those movies, yet the one Woody Allen movie I’ve enjoyed without reservation since Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), the undeniably gossamer but quite charming Magic in the Moonlight (2014), is one that admirers of his recent Oscar-winning films have found beneath contempt. Whether that says more about Allen or me is entirely in the eye of the beholder. And I admit that given the presence of Stone, I was hoping she might be working a little muse magic on the director such that their second collaboration might be as engaging in its way as their first one was.
Alas, Irrational Man is one from the “position paper” pile in Woody Allen’s box of ideas, and it plays about as dry and pro forma as one would expect from a director who has become as skittish about the illuminating, beyond-the-thesis marginalia of human relationships, to say nothing of the sticky mess of homicide, as Allen has. The venerated writer-director wonders in his ostensibly dramatic framework if a morally reprehensible act could ever be justifiable. I found myself wondering in turn, if Woody Allen asks such a question in a movie which itself feels as though it were made in a vacuum, will it make a sound if no one is there when it flops?