Every year around this time, Woody Allen picks up his instrument and plays us a tune. He’s been doing it rather consistently for fifty years – so long, in fact, that he operates outside of the normal Hollywood machine. Woody composes the songs he wants to compose, and has a regular open mic when he’s allowed to play us his new stuff. What that means is that we, as audiences, are given a great wealth of material to consume. Sometimes it’s a complexed arrangement, sometimes he’s just noodling…and we never know which one we’re going to get.
In IRRATIONAL MAN, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phonix) is an alcoholic, broken, shell of a philosophy professor about to begin a newly appointed tenure at Braylin University. He is haunted by his past failures, and of what he never became. Just don’t tell anyone on campus that. They see him as “Viagara for the philosophy department”. That, in itself, is ironic since Abe also can’t get it up anymore.
Abe’s first admirer is a psychology professor named Rita (Parker Posey). She sees Abe as an escape from her unfulfilling marriage, and for a while Abe is happy to reciprocate…even if it means confronting his own shortcomings as a lover. Abe’s second admirer is one of his undergrads, a student named Jill Pollard (Emma Stone). She finds him academically fascinating and personally engaging the way that can sometimes happen between students and their professors.
During a lunch date, the two overhear a conversation in the neighbouring booth about a biased judge and the harm he is about to cause one single mother. In this moment, they discuss whether there are people in the world who truly deserve to die, and if this judge might be one of them. Abe takes things one step further, and actually goes about murdering the judge. He considers it righting a great wrong in the universe, and a way to truly feel alive. What’s more, with the both the single mother and the judge being strangers to him, and Abe holding no motive, Abe sees this as a chance to commit the perfect crime.
But of course, perfect crimes so seldom are.
It’s difficult not to hear Woody Allen asking himself existential questions in the margins of IRRATIONAL MAN’s script. As we witness Abe’s self-loathing, hear his questions of how much he does-or-doesn’t matter, and take in critique of his work by his fellow faculty, the question of what is being achieved must be asked. Allen’s films have always dealt with these such themes, the key shift being that only in this century have the characters panning through the river of self-doubt been played by actors other than Woody himself. But does he believe that his work is style-over-substance? Does he believe that scrutiny of his work reveals very little in terms of new ideas?
While films like MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, MATCH POINT, and BLUE JASMINE reveal that Allen still has sharp ideas to offer filmgoers about all manner of topics, IRRATIONAL MAN does not. It’s a familiar story handed to some fresh faces and hung on a familiar structure. What’s more, the film seems to know this and relies on voice-over narration from both of its protagonists to attempt to add insight and texture. So when we consider this film as an individual work and a Woody Allen piece, it seems to come up wanting.
However, that leads us to consider the various functions of film as an art form. Film is most often considered a broad canvas, with which the artist can make grand statements. It’s an outlet to tell original stories, and leave lasting impressions on both the form and function of a good screenplay. Most of the truly iconic and deeply lasting films look to achieve one or more of these criteria. However, just the same, film can be a sketchbook; a way to paint in broad strokes and experiment with various ideas big and small. In that capacity, Woody Allen’s approach is a fascinating one, since once a year he invites audiences into his workshop to show them what he has done. The work present can sometimes be a rough sketch, or a reprise of previously completed offerings…but it can also sometimes be something vibrant, edgy, dark, and beautiful.
With that, the sketches become more valuable, since they lead Allen as an artist to the grander works.
IRRATIONAL MAN is largely a combination of an ingenue shepherding a middle-aged white dude out of his midlife crisis, and your standard tale of murder. What it achieves most in each avenue is largely thanks to the cute chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone. What’s interesting about Abe’s struggle is that it happens at a time where he is the source of much commotion, not from him seeking out commotion as so many lost middle-aged men do. His arrival at the college is met with much chatter and buzz, as is to be expected when an intelligent malcontent arrives on campus. What this means is that while he is disease-ridden with ennui and uncertainty, he is also the cure for those very symptoms where characters like Jill and Rita.
When we become so obsessed with our own reflections, we can sometimes become oblivious to how we come across to others.
All the same, is Abe everything that Rita and – especially – Jill make him out to be? Or is he just the right distraction at the right time? Is that all any May/December romance is all about?
Where the murder is concerned, the film is an exercise is watching the pieces come together. Like watching handsome footage of a delicious meal being prepared, or a meticulous device being assembled, there is something strangely satisfying in watching a murder story unfold. It’s actually pretty impressive that the story holds our attention, since it’s not a murder mystery: we know Abe did it, there’s nothing there to solve. The intrigue comes in seeing if Jill can put the pieces together, and what her reaction will be when she does. That’s where the film becomes a sketch.
Rather than a fully rounded plot, it’s more of a question about how a pupil might react if she discovered something terrible about her mentor. What happens to us when idle hypotheticals become stone-cold reality? The film doesn’t spend too long exploring the answer, but does leave us with a satisfied feeling, thanks in large part to the way it employs the rule of Chekov’s gun.
And so, for this year’s recital, Woody Allen has decided not to play us a completed and nuanced song, but instead a brief composition. It’s mostly bright-eyed and restless, like the jazzy Ramsey Lewis number that permeates the soundtrack, but also quickly forgettable. It’s amusing enough for 100 minutes’ entertainment, and it may serve a purpose down the line when we see it inform other works by this intriguing artist, but for now it must be lumped in with other rough pieces by this artist, and only recommended as “further reading”.