‘Irrational Man’ Possibly Woody Allen’s Worst (FILM REVIEW)

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Watching Irrational Man can be best described as watching a bunch of WASPs doing and saying a bunch of WASPy things amidst a sea of head-up-your-ass intellectualism that’s every bit as tedious and shallow as a conversation in an all-night coffee shop with an undergrad who’s taking introduction to philosophy. It’s a peek behind the curtains of the much maligned ivory tower of the liberal elite that almost made me take a philosophical hard right on general fucking principle. If this is what right wing pundits and philosophes mean when they discuss elitism among the left wing, I can’t say that I blame them for their vitriol; a mere hour and a half among their halls was more than enough to drive me mad with boredom and disregard.

So, basically, it’s a new Woody Allen movie.

Given all that this means, there are more than a few clichés and Woody tropes that make an appearance. There’s the nervous intellectual—a role that used to be reserved for Allen himself, but is now typically played by whomever is available, this time Joaquin Phoenix—the bright, young, and beautiful potential love interest (Emma Stone) who’s fascinated with the troubled intellectual when she should be repelled, and the somewhat crazy, but still bright, older woman who’s also a potential interest for the nervous man (Parker Posey). Add in some pseudo-intellectual rambling, a few absurdist plot points, and one or two coincidences, and you’ve got yourself a genuine Woody Allen film.

Phoenix plays Abe, a philosophy scholar consumed by existential negativity in a world he views as false. After picking up a summer teaching position at a small liberal arts school, where he pines and broods and drinks and says things like, “So much of philosophy is verbal masturbation,” he gains the affections of the university’s science professor, Rita (Posey) and bright-eyed young student Jill (Stone). He is a man on the verge of total burnout, the kind of man who toys with the idea of suicide and plays Russian roulette at a college party as a lesson in taking existential control. He takes this idea to the extreme when, upon overhearing a conversation about a supposedly corrupt judge in a local diner, he decides to plan and execute a murder as a means of finding new life.

It’s an idea searching desperately for a plot, shoehorning in groan-worthy bits of action to keep things moving in the hopes that the audience fails to notice that nothing is really being said. If that wasn’t bad enough, the whole thing is littered with trite observations that typically begin with phrases like, “According to Kierkegaard…like Nietzsche said…to quote Sartre.” It almost feels as though Allen is trying to prove he’s not just some sort of one-trick pony who’s been coasting off the success of Annie Hall for the last four decades. “Look at me,” he seems to say. “I read philosophy! I’m deep!”

The problem is he’s not. His attempts at depth prove quite the opposite, showing us all just how shallow he actually is. There’s nothing meaningful said here, no matter how hard Allen tries to show us otherwise. It comes off as worse than a freshman philosophy student; here, Allen sounds like a freshman philosophy student in danger of failing the class.

As far as characterization goes, at best we’re looking at caricatures. Stone and Phoenix do well enough, but their performances are hampered by the heavy hand of Allen, who makes no efforts to allow his audience to identify with anyone in the film. They move and act in nonsensical ways while saying nonsensical things as though Allen tried to imagine what people with these dispositions would be like without doing any real research. It comes across as affectation more than anything, as if these are people acting in ways they think they’re supposed to act rather than how they actually should.

It’s a waste of a fine cast, frankly. Phoenix, Stone, and Posey are all better than this, capable of so much more than the cinematic masturbation Allen has given us. I suppose I see where they’d want to be involved; it’s not every day you get the chance to work with a director of Allen’s esteem. But is esteem something Allen is even worthy of at this point? It’s clear that his best days are behind him and every subsequent outing is worse than the last. While I don’t think it would be possible for him to sink any lower than he has with this, I’d really prefer he not try again. Perhaps it’s time he realized it’s time to fade away; as it stands, his latter day output runs the risk of erasing the mark he made in his youth.

Irrational Man is in theaters now.

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One Response

  1. Remember when Woody Allen made movies that were funny? It seems he’s created a club but I would never join if it would have me as a member.

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