Could it be that Woody Allen just needs a vacation? Every year, he writes and directs a new film, and every year it brings less to the table than its predecessor. Some believe these projects vary in quality — that, say, a “Blue Jasmine” (2013) is superior to last year’s “Magic in the Moonlight” — but to me his body of work has become a study in diminishing returns. A few decades ago, his worst crime (as a filmmaker, anyway) was an “ecstasy of influence” — an unabashed, one-man immersion program in whichever artist held his fancy (usually Ingmar Bergman). These days the Woodman has taken to plagiarizing himself, which is akin to making a carbon copy of a carbon copy. Instead of making his newest, “Irrational Man” — an unfortunate echo of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” — perhaps he should have stopped to smell the roses, if for no other reason than to garner real-life experience for later plundering.
Abe is a hotshot philosophy professor (Jouquin Phoenix) who, drunken and depressive, can’t seem to will himself into caring about anything or anybody — not even the two beauties vying for his attention at the fictional (and highly unrealistic) Newport, Rhode Island university where he’s taken a teaching position. Manic science professor Rita, played by a Parker Posey hilariously unmoored in loose-fitting blouses and darting eyes, seems just what the doctor ordered but Abe is immune to her advances. Ostensibly it’s because he’s too much of a sadsack but we should know by now that couplings between contemporaries over age thirty is like a crime against nature in an Allen film. Abe is tempted by student Jill (Emma Stone), but not even her bright, bi-Cyclops gaze can penetrate his ennui. What works are his plans to kill a corrupt judge. Just strategizing about it gets his blood pumping again, which gets Jill’s blood pumping — at least until she begins to suspect what’s caused his change of heart. It’s too bad our blood doesn’t start pumping, too.
I’d feel worse about heckling this auto-derivative dirge except a younger Allen probably would have done so as well. “Irrational Man” announces its every turn with the same jazz track on which he heavily relied in “Mighty Aphrodite,” and it shares its title with a 1958 manual explaining existentialism to English-language readers. This makes a grim sort of sense because the script sounds like a cruddy translation of Swedish. Or maybe it sounds like an undergraduate thesis typed by one of Abe’s mediocre students; the coffee-shop Kant-ese is certainly trite enough, as is the laughably bald dialogue. Even a twentysomething therapized within an inch of her life isn’t liable to intone, “You are suffering from despair” or “His spirits now seem up.”
I will say Allen’s production values get better and better. Sun-dappled and color-saturated, Newport looks downright gorgeous (it’s shot in 35 mm), and Alisa Leselter’s editing is as sharp as ever. But it’s as if actors now accept roles in his movies as the ultimate challenge: If they can pull off this stilted material, they can pull off anything. Stone’s normally unflagging life force seems overexerted by the effort of keeping a straight face though, as the resident poster lady for middle-aged disappointment, nineties It Girl Posey finds colors Allen didn’t necessarily write. Best is Pheonix, who is the strongest American actor of his generation. Rather than phoning in a poor-man’s Woody, Joaquin channels the brooding (if bilious) beauty usually portrayed by the writer/director’s starlets; he may the first to successfully excavate the desperate, predatory selfishness living in between Allen’s lines. It’s an unsettlingly appealing performance, though not enough to merit suffering through this film in a theater.
It’s been theorized that if Allen ever stops working, he’ll die immediately — like the shark he famously likened to a relationship in “Annie Hall.” I have a different but equally macabre thought. For years Woody made films about older men sleeping with young women while seeming to practice greater restraint off-camera. But when news broke of his relationship with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, it turned out art was actually imitating life. Given his bevy of films about the mechanics of murder (“Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Scoop,” “Match Point,” “Cassandra’s Dream” and now “Irrational Man”), what is the artist formerly known as Allan Konigsberg trying to tell us now?
This was originally published in Word and Film.