Our yearly dose of Woody Allen is here and, have to say, expectations were pretty high this time, as the combination of one of my all-time-favorite directors with Joaquim Phoenix, one of the best actors out there (now that Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away I would say he's the best) was exciting. And, in my opinion, he does a terrific impersonation of a hedonistic and deeply troubled academic. But he's not enough to save 'Irrational Man' from leaving me with a disappointing impression overall, imo falling flat, at times worryingly flat, as a whole.
Not to say the film is a complete waste of time, as some critics have said. A "serious" Woody Allen film dealing with existence, murder, philosophy is going to be more interesting than 80% of what Hollywood offers you any given weekend. Let me summarise the virtues:
- Acting is very good. As I said, Phoenix is excellent portraying philosophy professor Abe Lucas tormented. The always haunting Emma Stone does a nice job as the brilliant but smitten student Jill Pollard, and Parker Posey is stunning, a real scene-stealer as the art professor Rita Richards, showing a physical intensity that matches Phoenix fierce way of acting in her desperate crush for Abe, a romance where she is “throwing herself” as her life in Braylin College chokes her.
- In a pretty powerful depiction of a “womaniser” lying behind a sensitive, broken and misunderstood character, Allen is portraying mercilessly the other side of the romantic bad boy. Even more than that: through Abe Allen is also pointing out that the high class (Vermont private College) and so-called intellectuals in particular, have it all wrong. Check the scene of the Russian Roulette, the standout of the film. Snobs adoring a fake idol.
- This is Woody Allen taking several risks. The narrative point of view is a surprising one, with two voices (Abe and Jill) telling the story, shifting from one to another. And while the topic he address is a serious, gloomy one, he attempts to blur the lines between his comedies and his dark dramas. True, is not the first, second or even third time we are facing a similar argument. Masterpiece ‘Crime and misdemeanors’, and forgettable ‘Cassandra’s Dream’ & ‘Match Point’ (yes, I said forgettable) deal with the same issues. But Allen is exploring a different tone here, sort of playful and lightweight despite being solemn at the same time. I’m not sure it completely works, but praise the risk on a director with 50 films on his shoulders. A romcom with a very dark soul. Or a noir film with a knack to laugh at itself. You decide.
- The “envelope” of the film is also different one for Woody, looking gorgeous (Vermont seems paradise), with music and aesthetics (and light!) looking like a new chapter on the new yorker's palette.
- The movie plot is explained to an obnoxious detail, with Allen stressing everything, reaching a point he almost seems he doesn’t trust the viewer’s intelligence. For me, it was shocking he decided to say everything and not just showing it (he has filmed so many eternal scenes where a face, a shoot tells it all...). The Dostoyevsky/Arendt note was too much for me.
- Being objective, the plot, despite being smart, is derivative to say the least. Yes, I get (and Allen makes Abe say it too) he wants to talk about chance/luck, but the Raskolnikov-type of murder, Jill discovery and the final scene arrives so awkwardly, there’s a feeling plot works because of pure luck too.
- The double narrator thing is ruined at the end. No spoiling here, but the mistake on the voices is blatantly huge.
- Allen doesn’t explore the potential of his female characters, particularly Rita. Can’t help but thinking Jill is also a bit underwritten. Knowing as much as she knows, there was room for a braver twist with her…