Woody Allen tells us about love and what to do when you have nothing to live for anymore.
I have a real sense of dread when I walk into a new Woody Allen film. I always hope for something wonderful but it seems to be equal measure good and bad in recent times. For every Blue Jasmine we get a Magic In The Moonlight. He is yet to make a truly awful film, but as the themes and characters start rolling together, his early work and later life renaissance start to glow less and less. And so I sat in my seat as the opening credits rolled on Irrational Man not knowing what to expect. What was strange to me was that as I left the cinema 2 hours later, I was still not entirely sure what I thought, I had smiled, laughed, been led on a twisting journey but I wasn’t entirely convinced with everything.
Irrational Man see’s Joaquin Phoenix as Abe, a psychology professor in the middle of a breakdown after a tough life and too much introspection has led him to believe there is no real purpose in life. Because this is a Woody Allen film, in steps the student, lovely young Jill, played by current Allen muse, Emma Stone. Jill takes it upon herself to help Abe reconnect with some happier parts of life to the disgust of her boyfriend, preppy stereotype Roy (Jamie Blackley). After an opportune bit of eavesdropping, Abe and Jill’s journey is sent off in an unseen direction and this is where the plot really gets interesting. The trailer for the film laid Irrational Man out to be yet another Allen film about mismatched love between the generations and infidelity, and while we still get both those things, it was a big relief to have that as a side dish to a main plot which relates more to films like Crimes and Misdemeanors than Whatever Works.
One of the most refreshing things about Irrational Man was how Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe. So many times we have seen Allen’s leading men reduced to caricatures of Allen’s own neurotic Jew. A character Allen embodies so well, but feels forced in the hands of men like Kenneth Branagh, Owen Wilson, Larry David and even Scarlett Johansson in Scoop. Phoenix here instead takes the melancholy and dense dialogue we expect from the writer and makes it his own, channelling inner demons similar to the lost souls we have seen him master in many previous roles. He is allowed to roll with many emotions here, from despondent to elated, he is magnetic on the screen and holds the movie with his supporting cast doing no heavy lifting. Emma Stone plays the waify wide eyed girl we are used to by now, she perhaps sits closer to an Annie Hall than Melody from the previously mentioned Whatever Works. She is clever but still lets her infatuation control her heart and lead her astray.
Irrational Man runs like most other Woody Allen films of the last decade or so, with a warm colour palette and a 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio ensuring a beautiful final product. With much inner dialogue we are given long close ups of characters faces. We see their clothing change as their emotional arcs develop. We even see Jill change her eating and drinking habits as she grows in the film. Such detail is taken as the filmmaker has mastered his craft and is so precise while painting his annual masterpieces. It is hard to find a film of his that isn’t visually stunning, from his period pieces to his modern works, Irrational Man is no different.
Arguably Woody Allen has done everything right with Irrational Man, we have a visually beautiful film, with a perfectly acted lead, a twisting engaging plot and enough dark humour to give me a consistent smirk. Where the film disappoints is in the now standard formula of adultery and grooming. If i wasn’t an avid viewer of Allen film’s it wouldn’t be as apparent and it is handled here differently, but it seems to be a trademark of his more tired films in the last few decades. I enjoyed Irrational Man and I will enjoy repeat viewings as one of his better films. I would recommend it to anyone with a passing interest in Woody Allen films and anyone who is after a change of pace to a summer blockbuster season packed with CGI and world ending consequence.