Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix deliver in Irrational Man. (Sabrina Lantos/Sony Pictures Classics)
After a two-decade-long slump, neurotic New York auteur Woody Allen seemed poised for a major critical comeback after his charming 2011 smash Midnight in Paris and its highly regarded 2013 follow-up Blue Jasmine. Unfortunately, last year’s schmaltzy Magic in the Moonlight was a major dud, and Allen’s unfortunate backslide continues with his latest disappointment, the overwrought and pretentious Irrational Man.
Profoundly stuck in the legendary director’s dusty comfort zone, Man centers around Professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a glum, nihilistic philosophy teacher (and, of course, Allen surrogate) who arrives to teach at a small-town college only to find his world upturned by Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), a peppy, beautiful young student. Typically, the wide-eyed nymphette finds Abe’s brooding gravitas attractive and attempts to initiate a romance with the teacher, who initially rebuffs her. However, after overhearing a woman in a local diner complain about a villainous corrupt judge denying her custody of her children, Abe becomes obsessed with killing the evil lawman as an act of existential justice. As Abe begins planning the murder, he finds his life enriched with purpose and he gives in to Jill’s advances, thus leading to a tangled web of lust, lies and lame pontificating.
Indeed, were I not painfully aware of Allen’s advanced age, I might think that Man is the work of an overeager 20-something grad student intent on proving how cultured and clever he is. Though Abe Lucas is touted as something of a metaphysical genius, his undercooked speechifying about Kierkegaard and Heidegger come off as more vacant name-dropping than thoughtful profundity. One would think that after creating such a vastly beloved volume of work, Allen would be comfortable enough with his position to let his characters talk like actual humans instead of droning projections of his own navel-gazing ego. Unfortunately, rather than maturing, Allen’s prose has become outmoded and archaic. When 20-year-old college students utter lines like “making love,” it becomes apparent that they are being whirled about the stage by an out-of-touch septuagenarian. Allen has stated in interviews that he doesn’t watch TV and has been known to be something of a hermit, all of which causes his writing to suffer from the curse of being stuck in the past.
In addition to sacrificing realism in his character’s voices, Allen also seems unconcerned with reason on a plot level, as most of the film’s big twists and revelations involving the murder of the judge would not hold up to even the most gentle bit of scrutiny. In Allen’s insular world, things like security cameras and DNA evidence don’t exist, probably because they lack the mid-20th-century charm the director is so obsessed with curating. As a result of this fast-and-loose logic, a film, which with taut plotting could be a nifty little thriller, devolves into a sloppy, tedious mess by its third act.
The big tragedy here is that two brilliant performances are wasted on Allen’s perfunctory script. The always excellent Phoenix delivers a convincingly eccentric turn as Prof. Lucas, making a typically grating Allen caricature somewhat likable for the first two acts with his mush-mouthed quirks. Also, the usually flat Stone delivers what is probably the best performance of her career as wide-eyed ingenue Jill, imbuing the character with a kind of New England zeal that sells her flat role better than most young performers could.
Nevertheless, the plain fact remains that Irrational Man simply doesn’t work. In my estimation, it’s down there at the bottom of the Woody pile, alongside his early-2000s dreck like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Of course, following his press-pushed “return to form,” it’s likely that Allen will be cut a bit of a break here critically, especially by those members of the old guard who find him a brave iconoclast, still willing to build monuments to Baby Boomer narcissism even in the face of utter obsolescence.
Sony Pictures Classics
In theaters July 17
Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).