Whatever else he’s been, Woody Allen has been a “serial monogamist” throughout his career, to borrow a phrase from Four Weddings and a Funeral. He’s always leaned heavily on a muse, and has tended to stick with the same muse for anywhere from a handful to upwards of a half-dozen films. Past muses have included Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Judy Davis and Scarlett Johansson. (And to quote a different movie, Dazed and Confused, he just keeps getting older, while they just stay the same age.) Now he’s moved on to Emma Stone, and though Irrational Man is only their second collaboration, all the hallmarks of an Allen obsession are present. Their first time working together, last year’s Magic in the Moonlight, was indeed a bit magical. To hold Irrational Man in the same regard would be … well, irrational.
The subject of rationality is at hand because this year’s Allen stand-in, first-time collaborator Joaquin Phoenix, is playing an alcoholic philosophy professor who has lost his lust for life. Abe Lucas has found his way to a fictitious Rhode Island university based on his brilliant mind, not his sense of personal propriety. Following him to this new school is a reputation for being difficult and for sleeping with those around him, faculty and students alike. He’s got a candidate from each realm at his new job: Rita Richards (Parker Posey), a chemistry professor looking for an escape from her boring marriage to a fellow professor, and Jill Pollard (Stone), a philosophy student looking for an escape from her boring relationship with a fellow student. In typical Allen fashion, both women fall immediately under his spell despite the character not doing anything demonstrably charming or even intriguing. (The gut Phoenix put on for the role is also amply on display.) In not very typical Allen fashion, the man of letters is creatively blocked – a condition that couldn’t apply less to the octogenarian director, who continues to churn out movies at the pace of one per year. However, the fact that both women find him brilliant – that’s more recognizably Woody. Anyway, Abe rediscovers his bliss by stumbling over a golden opportunity to put one of his more radical philosophies into practice, taking it out of the classroom realm, out of the realm of what he terms “verbal masturbation.”
Irrational Man is a bunch of verbal masturbation indeed. This is Allen’s most laboriously crafted film since Cassandra’s Dream, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the planning of a serious crime is at the heart of both films. Allen simply isn’t very good at laying out a high-concept plot without needlessly repeating material until the audience feels like it’s being stricken by a bludgeon. This is Allen’s most expository dialogue in ages, and making matters worse is that he doles out narrator duties to two different characters, as Abe and Jill alternate summarizing what’s just occurred on screen. Not only is this material redundant, with much of what is narrated easily inferable from what little action there is, but Allen even regularly undercuts that pittance of action by narrating it 15 seconds before it actually happens. Allen has never paid particular attention to the cinematic wisdom “show don’t tell,” but it’s hard to remember a time he has ignored it as blatantly as he has here. Making matters yet worse is that characters always seem to fall ass backwards into just the conversations they need to have at just the right time to move the narrative’s clumsy wheels forward. This awkward staginess extends even to the blocking, as actors walk or move or turn to the left with no greater motivation than someone off camera signalling them to do so.
Irrational Man has a good idea or two, but even those are indebted to Alfred Hitchcock, as one of Hitch’s most iconic films provides the logic for what happens in the second half of the movie. If it had just stayed adrift within the navel-gazing arena of a starry-eyed student and a lecherous professor falling for each other, it might have been salvageable as an interesting failure. But with this shift to the characters tediously unraveling a mystery (a mystery solved for the audience tens of minutes earlier), the film becomes downright maddening. As for the actors, there are several good ones present here, but let’s just say none of them will be adding Irrational Man to their show reels. As for one actress in particular, Woody’s muse du jour, working with him previously has done her no favours. Allen does pull off a trick that anyone familiar with her work would have thought was impossible: He makes Emma Stone unlikable.
A film like Irrational Man might prompt even Allen’s most ardent fans to conclude that he’s finally lost it. But only just last year, Magic in the Moonlight was quite good. I guess we’ll just have to see what 2016 has in store before providing a verdict on the man’s ongoing creative usefulness.