Wednesday, July 22, 2015

IRRATIONAL MAN Is An Entertainingly Oddball Effort From Woody Allen


- At this point, watching a new Woody Allen film is sort of a singular experience. For good and for bad, there's nothing else quite like it. Between Woody's real-life scandals and the way they seem to awkwardly and consistently be reflected in his films (older men with younger women, for example) and his anachronistic dialogue and characters, there are often a lot of things in Woody's modern-day movies that make me cringe just a little. And yet ... I still love visiting the world of Woody. No other filmmaker has a voice like his, and few other movies fixate on the philosophical in quite the same way as Allen's tend to do. Such is IRRATIONAL MAN - a movie that is both frustrating and uniquely entertaining. It's got a fantastic cast - anchored by Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone (and Parker Posey!) - and a fun premise. It's good enough that I was able to overlook some of the awkwardness and go with it. Even though the movie's got no Allen and not even an Allen proxy, in many ways it's vintage Woody.

IRRATIONAL MAN follows Phoenix as Abe, a sort of rock star philosophy professor who seems to go from university to university, wowing students, pissing off faculty, drinking too much, and wooing his fair share of female students and colleagues along the way. He seems to be trying - but not necessarily succeeding - to avoid his old patterns at his latest teaching gig at a Brown-esque New England college. A married music teacher (Posey) lusts after him, as does Jill (Stone), a student who worships the ground he walks on. Even as Abe succumbs to both of their wiles, he finds himself restless and anxious. What finally motivates and excites him is a random idea that comes into his head, after overhearing a conversation at a diner. Abe hears a woman break down in tears, complaining about a heartless judge. Abe becomes convinced that if the cruel judge were to die - if he were to be murdered - the world would ultimately become a better place, and many would be spared his cruelty. Abe decides that he should be the one to commit the act, and begins brainstorming the perfect murder - all, he's convinced, in the name of serving the greater good. The more sure Abe becomes about the rightness of his mission, the more he seems to climb out of his alcohol-fueled depression.

On one hand, IRRATIONAL MAN is a very small, very slight film. On the other hand, there's a lot to unpack here. Allen seems to be using Abe to explore the idea of going down a philosophical rabbit hole at the expense of one's own morality. By becoming obsessed with "the greater good," Abe loses sight of just how coldly cruel his actions really are. And ultimately, he's something of a hypocrite - because as much as he talks about the greater good, he'll also do almost anything in the name of self-preservation. Basically, IRRATIONAL MAN seems to be Allen's thesis-statement about why putting too much stock in high-minded philosophical ideas is, essentially, bull$#&%. 

Phoenix's mumbly-weirdo persona is a good fit for the film. It's easy to buy him as a wrapped-up-in-his-own-head philosophy professor with a bit of a screw loose. He also brings a lot of humor to the table. What's more though, he is able to run with Allen's sometimes-stilted dialogue and make it his own. Emma Stone has the tougher time of things. As Jill, Stone is forced to play a doting college student who feels like a relic of some lost 70's TV-movie about New England prep-school girls with a rebellious streak. Before she falls in with Abe, Jill is dating a guy so dorky and square that he may as well be wearing a white sweater draped around his neck (he may actually be in some scenes, I don't recall). And Jill talks like no 21-year-old has *ever* talked, except in Woody-World. But that's part and parcel, I guess, with these movies. At least Parker Posey is better able to just go all-in and throw herself into the role of attention-starved hanger-on. Posey is great here, and by going broad with the character she makes it work.

The New England setting is an unusual one for Allen, but he really takes advantage of it. It's a great-looking film, capturing the stately vibe of an Ivy League university and of a quaint, seaside New England college town. There's nothing really flashy here, but the movie overall is picturesque and perfectly captures the sort of world of academia that surrounds Abe and, in many ways, feeds his vices. 

If you can get past all the weird Woody-isms, there's a fun little psychological comedic thriller to be found here. Yes, there will be more philosophers name-dropped than you'll know what to do with. And yes, you can have a pretty good drinking game if you take a shot every time a character awkwardly and non-ironically uses the term "making love." But you've also got to sort of marvel at how Allen's scripts, as dusty and eccentric as they may feel in 2015, remain stubbornly intellectual in an age where most everything else in pop-culture feels dumbed-down to the nth degree. Sure, we've seen many a movie in which a seemingly mild-mannered man tries his hand at murder. But rare is the movie where that man's thoughts on the matter are presented in the context of long, flowing dialogue exchanges about philosophy and existentialism and nihilism and ... well, you get the picture. That's Woody for you. I'm always curious what stories he has for us, and always interested to hear what he has to say. IRRATIONAL MAN is a strange beast of a film - stubbornly eccentric and occasionally frustrating - but it's also oddly refreshing: a complete 180 from most of what you'll see in theaters this year. 

My Grade: B

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