Despite a year or so of controversy over sexual abuse allegations, director Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man, is doing robust box office. Whether you like it or not, the man behind the plastic-rimmed glasses is back in business. He could live to be 150 and still get money to make movies, so I’m making peace with it.
In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe—oh, how I wish this film had been released under Allen’s preferred title, Crazy Abe—a philosophy professor at an unnamed university, who jolts himself out of depression through morally dubious actions. Though it’s been widely reported that the film features a love story between Phoenix and his student, played by Emma Stone, Irrational Man is a comic thriller, not another May-December (or in this case, May-September) romance.
Woody Allen’s literariness has been part of his cinematic universe for the entirety of his career, and he has some fun in Irrational Man throwing down poetic philosophical references—Heidegger here, Edna St. Vincent Millay there. In much the same way that Bullets Over Broadway is a film about the hypocrisies of being a dramatist, Irrational Man is a film about the hypocrisies of being an intellectual. It bases itself around a simple philosophical problem: Can murder be moral? It’s a question cinema has exploited time and time again, but this is a fundamentally Woody Allen treatment, with loopily self-reflective dialogue, the medium two-shots his actors love so much, and agnostic cynicism.
But beyond the plot, there is a disconnect in Irrational Man between its philosophy and the actual feeling of the film.
The characters opine the indifference of our random universe, yet the world that Allen creates is airtight to the point of being airless. The most satisfying moments of Allen’s recent output are the moments that feel aimless and lead to nothing—the visual gags in Scoop, Marion Cotillard choosing to live in the past in Midnight in Paris, the final scenes of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In Allen’s last couple of movies, there are moments where it seems possible that the director will diverge from the script and let his characters experience a taste of the life that they so loquaciously lament. But then Allen returns to his bag of tricks—flashlights in the case of Irrational Man, spinning chairs in Magic In The Moonlight—and you’re right back in your seat, the big ideas his characters wrestle with safely contained to the spectacle onscreen.
At my screening of Irrational Man, I could feel myself becoming annoyed at the audience’s laughter. As I tried to rationalize this selfish agitation, it took me a while to understand that the knowing laughter of the audience was a vocalization of their feelings of safety. While I waited for the moment that Allen would surprise me, they had no desire to be surprised. What was pleasurable for them was exactly what was frustrating for me. Irrational Man is a Christian morality play without the Christianity. Instead of people, Allen showed up with puppets, and asked us to laugh when he pulled their strings.
If you can accept that you’re entering a puppet world, Irrational Man is one of Allen’s richer offerings as of late. It helps that he has chosen his actors well, and that they each seem to have their own interest in the material at hand. If at the start of the film, it was disconcerting that each actor seemed to be in a different movie, by the end, it had become one of the chief pleasures for me. I felt free to enjoy the different angles each actor seemed to be playing. It was refreshing to see Joaquin Phoenix freed from the responsibility that most filmmakers lay on him to be the bearer of cinematic truth and authenticity, but it was just as pleasurable to watch Emma Stone wrestle with her middle-class appeal, or Parker Posey play up and against feelings of abandonment. (That Posey has signed on to work with Woody Allen again after this film seems like the best possible outcome of this film.)
But, coming out of Irrational Man, it’s hard to shake a sense of purposelessness. Allen is one of the world’s most reliable independent filmmakers—you know what you’re getting when you walk into the theater, and that reliability has helped him build an international brand. His films can be made for cheap, from the dollars of international investors who can guarantee the return on their investments. So without the scrounging for funding that’s all too common in the independent film sector right now, Allen is free to pull any old script out of hibernation, take his pick of the actors he’d like, and make a movie. But with his last few films, it’s starting to seem like Allen’s stores are running on empty.
One of the reasons I’m curious about the series that he’s supposedly producing with Amazon—besides his protestations about knowing nothing about television—is that it will presumably force Allen out of his back catalogue and into new writing. Until then, I guess we’re all treading water.