Saturday, August 1, 2015
IRRATIONAL MAN review
Late-period Woody Allen always comes with a degree of measured expectations. Sometimes he can still legitimately surprise and delight, other times he can flat out miss. Lately though, at least since "Midnight in Paris," I'd say his movies have ranged from "pretty damn good" to "slight, but still mostly enjoyable." "Magic in the Moonlight" tested my patience at times, but I was cool with it. "To Rome With Love" is the same deal. Now Woody's back with "Irrational Man" where he's twisting the themes of morality once again. This is something he first explored with "Crimes and Misdemeanors" as well as "Match Point."
"Irrational Man" essentially amounts to being a crude interpretation of the famous Dostoevsky novel Crime and Punishment and it's an influence Allen wears on his sleeve. We, in fact, find his lead character Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) with an opened copy of the book, having highlighted certain passages. So, yeah, Woody Allen is pretty straight-forward about his inspirations here and what he conjures up is mostly entertaining, even if a little undercooked. But a resoundingly strong performance from Joaquin Phoenix as well as a great supporting cast that includes Emma Stone and Parker Posey---they bring Allen's material up a notch.
Especially when it comes to Joaquin. Like Owen Wilson in "Midnight in Paris," Joaquin Phoenix has such a strong personality and different way of delivering lines that he really brings something new and different to the typical Woody Allen protagonist. Phoenix does away with the neuroses entirely, but there's always something off-kilter about the character he plays, Phoenix sells Abe Lucas's budding descent into insanity (or irrationality, really) in a way that feels effortless. This helps move forward a plot that really could've fallen on its face or completely changed the tone for the worst. But because Abe Lucas always comes across as a bit odd, the movie never really feels different tonally.
Basically, Abe Lucas is a famous writer of philosophy who agrees to teach for a semester at a New England liberal arts-type college. He immediately gets the attention of Rita (Parker Posey), a fellow professor and Jill (Emma Stone), who's a student of his. Both are gunning for his affection, but Abe is more than a bit standoffish and quite depressed. He's got writer's block, he's impotent, and when he's not teaching, he's in his apartment sulking.
And then of course, he has an epiphany. Suddenly, he comes across an idea that gives his life purpose. And if you've read Crime and Punishment, you probably know where this is going. Let's just say "Irrational Man" takes a dark turn halfway through, but Joaquin Phoenix's smugness about his epiphany and superiority actually makes this "dark turn" into something fairly humorous. I gotta say it's been awhile since I laughed this much at a Woody Allen film, but the way Phoenix underplays certain lines just slayed me. I'm a fan of the man, what do you want from me?
Really, that'll be the factor as far as whether you personally gain enjoyment from this film. But much of it is actually pretty sharp and witty. I only take issue with the way the story evolves in the last third where Abe Lucas makes a leap in logic that just doesn't quite work with what's been established.
As with most Allen films of late, it seems he's so intent on churning out the next script and getting into production, there simply appears to be little/no regard for making sure all the pieces of his story fits. What it all comes down to are the performances (great), the cinematography (another superb outing from Darius Khondji), and whether the story is clever enough to wanna follow from beginning to end (it is). It doesn't quite add up to another late-period gem from the filmmaker, but it's still pretty solid.