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Film Review: "Irrational Man"

Making all his nowhere plans


Here we are once again: another year, another Woody Allen film. The prolific director's latest cinematic endeavor comes packed with the filmmaker's trademarks: erudite intellectuals sit around conversing about philosophy and morality until an ill-conceived scheme (or two) comes along to shake up the snow-globe sized world they inhabit. But as in Allen's past few films, those philosophical musings get thrown around without ever capturing how real human beings might engage with them; these people exist only as characters in a Woody Allen film. And then there's Allen's troubling continued need to cast ingénues as love interests for his much older leading men. If that suggests an obliviousness (or perhaps ambivalence) to the attention being paid to his personal life, "Irrational Man" at least hints that some of the outside world may finally be sinking in.

Maintaining the kind of pace Allen does inevitably has an impact on his output, and his recent films have a tendency to arrive feeling only half-baked. The reason may be explained by a recent interview with NPR, in which the director admits that for him filmmaking isn't a passion, but simply "a pleasant way to make a living." That mindset makes a lot of sense if you consider his movies as hobbies he tinkers with out in the garage whenever he has a free moment, until they're required to be released into theaters.

In Allen's latest diversion, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a newly arrived professor of philosophy at Braylin College, a fictional Rhode Island university of liberal arts. Abe may once have been a visionary thinker, filled with potential, but he's not anymore. Schlubby, cynical, and indifferent to the world and seemingly everyone in it, he's perpetually drowning his distressed mind in booze (courtesy of his ever-present flask). Yet somehow he's still irresistible to women. In particular, Jill (Emma Stone), a promising student of Abe's, for whom the presence of a boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) doesn't stop her from relentlessly pursuing her professor's attentions. She obsesses over him, projecting her own idealistic notions on the man; where most see "troubled," she sees "fascinating and vulnerable." Though Abe is followed by persistent rumors of his past dalliances with students, faculty seem inexplicably to look the other way. Meanwhile, an unhappily married fellow professor named Rita (Parker Posey, faring best of the bunch) enters into an affair with Abe, wanting to see herself as the muse capable of bringing the depressed man back to vigorous life.

Jill and Abe's relationship follows the expected course - with him pushing her away and her growing more insistent - until the moment he overhears a stranger's conversation, which presents him with a unique opportunity. As Abe formulates a plot that may help him get his groove back, the film shifts gears and the loose comedy begins to contemplate the darker side of human nature.

Allen is covering similar moral territory as his great "Crimes and Misdemeanors," but unlike that film, which separated its tonal shifts into two separate stories - cutting between the two and allowing them to complement and enrich one another as needed - here they coexist uneasily in a single plot. There's a sharp divide between the two halves of the film, and the result is a romance that isn't really romantic fused to a thriller that never truly thrills. "Irrational Man" eventually reveals itself as a coming-of-age story of sorts for Jill (which actually makes it sound even creepier than it is). The plot revolves around her naiveté falling away as her illusions about Abe are shattered. But since we see straight away what kind of man he is, that means we're forced to wait around for her to catch up.

One of the reasons so many like myself are inclined to read certain aspects of Allen's films as commentary on his own life is the increasing sense that Allen has over the years grown disconnected from average human beings. Even his more successful recent work like "Blue Jasmine" displays a certain tone-deafness in its portrayal of the supposedly blue-collar characters played by Sally Hawkins and Bobby Cannavale. Allen seem to have no idea what those types of character might actually look like, so in his insular world, he's required to look more and more inward in an effort to come up with material.

(As Abe engages in immoral behavior and expects to get away with it, he's given to proclamations justifying his behavior, telling Jill that "if it feels right, it often is." He dismisses those who discuss his proclivities as nobodies "filling their lonely hours with gossip." Allen throws these lines in as if daring us to make our own connections, whether they're there or not.) But "Irrational Man" distinguishes itself from the rest of Allen's filmography through a sense of self-awareness about its troubled genius. For once, the director views his main character with a certain skepticism (it's right there in the title). Instead of revering Abe, Jill eventually wakes up to see him for the sad man he is. Of course, he still gets to sleep with her first.