For a little while there, it looked like we were on a one-off, one-on pattern w/r/t the quality of Woody Allen’s annual feature film — You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was followed by Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love by Blue Jasmine, and thus last summer’s wildly mediocre Magic in the Moonlight would seem to indicate we were due for another good one. Alas, Allen’s latest, Irrational Man, is not that good one — in fact, it’s a picture so dire, its problems so base and elementary, that I’m honestly not sure he still has good ones in him.
Frustratingly, the materials are promising. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe Lucas, a legendary philosophy writer and visiting professor at a small Rhode Island university. He rolls into town a mess: drinking like a fish, borderline suicidal, blocked as a writer, impotent as a lover. He can’t even enjoy the warm professor (Parker Posey) who’s throwing herself at him, much less the gifted student (Emma Stone) who has a crush on him — until he overhears a woman despairing to her friends about a corrupt judge who’s ruining her life. In a neat, Strangers on a Train-echoing turn, Abe realizes he can help her. And in doing so, he frees himself from his existential crisis.
It’s not unusual to note that Allen has something in common with his protagonist, but here, it’s a case of the filmmaker falling prey to Abe’s thinking: he engages in something that’s a worthwhile intellectual exercise, and finds it doesn’t really work in practice. The notion of playing a murder thriller as a light comedy is a clever one, and interpreting the aftermath of such an act as a cause for celebration rather than guilt or doubt helps set Irrational Man apart from Allen’s earlier explorations of similar themes (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream).
But the trouble is in the execution. I’m not talking about the fact that he’s repeating himself (which comes with the territory), or that he’s returning to the contextually unnerving territory of the May/December romance (see previous paren), or even that the performances are so joltingly uneven (Phoenix is a gifted actor, and he’s not the least bit convincing reciting his carefully memorized lines). I’m talking about the fact that Mr. Allen, both as a writer and a director, is in desperate need of an editor.
Allen’s process is, by now, part of his legend: once a year, he sits down at the typewriter his mother bought him when he was 16 (he turns 80 this year) and writes a new screenplay. He doesn’t have to take it to a studio or a financier for approval; sometimes he doesn’t even do any revisions. He hands it to his producer (who is also his sister), her team works up the budget, the roles are cast, and the film is made. He then sits with his editor and puts the movie together exactly as he sees fit, and then he sits down to write the next one. Such autonomy is rare, even in the independent film world. And make no mistake, that autonomy has resulted in some of the finest films of the modern era.
But for whatever reason — increasing age, declining interest, a fuller plate — Magic in the Moonlight and now Irrational Man play like first cuts of films that were shot from their first drafts. Mixed reactions to earlier pictures were often a result of personal preference or affection for Allen’s style, but these recent efforts aren’t even getting basic screenwriting and filmmaking right. The first act of Magic features a peculiar, alarming number of scenes where the picture’s premise is stated, and then restated, and then restated, as though Allen either a) has forgotten that he already explained it, b) is afraid we’ve forgotten it, or c) is worried people are arriving late and need to be caught up.
There’s a similar series of scenes in Irrational Man, in which Stone’s Jill and her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley) discuss Abe Lucas (that’s what he’s always called, “Abe Lucas”), and Roy says he’s nervous that she has or will have a crush on Abe Lucas, and she assures him that he’s her one true love and he has nothing to worry about, and that’s the scene. Said scene plays out with little variation, no exaggeration, four times; during the fourth, she exclaims, “God, Roy, we have had this conversation so many times,” to which you want to shout back, “No kidding!”
Her passes at Abe play out with similar repetition — indeed, often with similar dialogue, and without enough variation to explain their recurrence. Other scenes are oddly inexplicable; beyond the first act, for example, the glimpses of Abe in the classroom are so brief (often a single line of dialogue) and poorly written that their mere inclusion is baffling. A lengthy, ponderous scene of Abe, Jill, and her parents trying to figure out who committed the murder recalls the group-think scenes of Allen’s wonderful Manhattan Murder Mystery, but there’s no tension or even interest, because we’ve seen the conclusion they’re creaking towards, and it’s taking them forever to get there.
And let’s not even get started on the unfortunate “college party” scene, which is shabbily written (Abe does something that would get a tenured professor booted, to say nothing of a visiting writer), incompetently blocked (the players all line up in a row, facing the camera, like they’re in a middle school play), and choked with dialogue which suggests, to put it mildly, that Mr. Allen hasn’t spent a lot of time hanging out with college kids lately. (My colleagues who love to trot out the “computer class” lines from Blue Jasmine will hardly know where to begin here.)
For a good, long while, Allen’s instincts as a screenwriter and director have been all but unimpeachable, but they are, in these very basic ways, failing him — and he’s too much of a legend for anyone to push back. He famously tells his actors to feel free to change their dialogue, and, just as famously, they’d never do that (Parker Posey relates a telling story on WTF about the one time she dared to). But if an actor as headstrong as Phoenix can’t be trusted to suggest to Allen that he should say “I Googled him” rather than “I checked him out on my computer” (actual line!), then Allen needs some kind of a collaborator — a script editor, a co-writer (he’s worked with them before), a voice in the editing room, somebody — who will.
It gives this writer no pleasure to report that a Woody Allen movie is so poor, having admired his work enough to spend a year revisiting all of his movies, and writing a book about them. And I’ve seen positive reviews from fellow enthusiasts that would be baffling, were I not so keenly aware of where they’re coming from; when you’re a fan, you can talk yourself into just about anything. But these are bad movies, and if there’s one thing to learn from his bulky filmography, it’s that you have to acknowledge the bad ones to fully appreciate when — or, as the case may be, if — he makes the next good one.
Irrational Man is out Friday in limited release.