This Year's Allen
Connoisseurs of digital projection technology not being what it cracked up to be would have enjoyed some marvellous scenes at the Phoenix in Jericho, the other day, when a system crash resulted in a large number of screenings having to be switched between the planned theatres at short notice. Now, as you might expect, moving from the small screen-with-the-slightly-inadequate-rake to the nice big screen was not a problem, but switching the other way was. Large crowds of tense filmgoers built up, all intent on bagging the prime seats in rows A, E, and F. It was of course nice to see such commitment to filmgoing, especially from an audience which was, not to put too fine a point on it, knocking on a bit.
What was the occasion for such a keen and sizable turnout? Well, believe it or not, it was a preview showing of Irrational Man, this year’s Woody Allen movie. I had no idea he still had such a dedicated following (and I’m saying that as someone who’s only missed one of his films in the last five years or so – inevitably it turned out to be the really acclaimed and successful one).
I don’t know, the fashionable thing is to say that Woody Allen has long since been off the boil, but was he ever really that consistent? Even some of the Early, Funny films are not honestly that funny. I was writing about his work ethic recently and it really seems to me that his reputation does rest in part on the fact that he simply never stops working – if one film is bad (as they not infrequently are), well, never mind, he’s already in the middle of making the next one, with a further project at the scripting stage. His movies are cheap enough to make, attract big enough stars, and he has a big enough cult following to keep going no matter what. On the other hand, this way of working basically means he has to make a film every year, regardless of whether or not he has had a decent idea or if the script is as polished as it needs to be.
Which brings us to Irrational Man, another one of Allen’s forays into morality-based comedy-drama. It opens with a voice-over where Joaquin Phoenix muses about Kant while his character cruises along in his car drinking whiskey, so you know this is going to be a film with aspirations to profundity right from the word go. Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a maverick philosophy professor (yup, another film about a maverick philosophy professor) who is starting a new job, but has basically lost his mojo. Needless to say, however, his intensity and erudition make him irresistible to many of the women on the college campus (fellow academic Parker Posey and student Emma Stone amongst them). I know, I know – an older, intellectually-inclined man has effortless romantic success with extremely attractive young women? In a Woody Allen movie? What are the chances?!?
Bafflingly, this still doesn’t cheer Abe up, and he resorts to doing odd things like playing Russian roulette at parties to give his life some fleeting excitement. All this changes when he overhears a woman complaining about the misery her life has become as the result of the actions of a corrupt public official. He resolves to put his radical ethical theories into action by – you guessed it – planning and committing the murder of the man in question, believing it to be morally justifiable, and – perhaps more importantly – completely untraceable to him. The notion perks him up considerably, and soon he finds he is enjoying life much more…
Going to a Woody Allen movie is itself not entirely unlike playing Russian roulette – not that there's a strong chance of you getting shot in the head (not at the kind of cinemas I generally frequent, anyway), but you really have no way of knowing whether the hammer's going to descend on something really quite distinguished and notable, or just another so-so rehash of Allen's usual themes, or – heaven forfend – one of those absolute stinkers the director still produces on a dismayingly regular basis. Unfortunately, while Irrational Man is not quite as bad as the worst of Allen's recent output, it's still not the kind of movie you'd dream of showing someone to demonstrate just why Woody Allen is a film-maker worthy of their attention.
As I say, I think the self-imposed rigours of Allen's schedule may be partly to blame, because Irrational Man has the definite feel of being two or three drafts away from an actual, polished script. It often feels more like the work of someone applying to film-school than the work of a veteran artist making his 45th movie – theme, plot, and characters are all there, but in the most crude and obvious form, and perhaps the most startling thing about it is that it doesn't really contain a single memorable or quotable line of dialogue. Instead, it relies heavily on voice-over from a number of characters to communicate plot and feeling (this itself is arguably a cheat, as not everyone providing a voice-over survives to the end of the story, so one has to wonder what point in time they're narrating from). Much of the narration itself is clunky: 'more devastating revelations were to come,' Stone's character informs us at one point, deadpan, while 'finally my job running an elevator was going to pay off!', Phoenix narrates gleefully, improbable as it might sound.
I mean, it's never actually painful to watch, as such, and the cinematography and soundtrack are both very nice (I got a bit sick of 'I'm In with the In-Crowd' being endlessly recycled, though). There appear to be a couple of subtle raids on Hitchcock going on, as well, and there's a kind of fun to be had in spotting these. It's just that the contrived and laborious script (we're shown that Lucas is a man in crisis by the way he constantly drinks whiskey from a hip flask – and we're shown it in practically every single scene, to the extent that it becomes ridiculous) and the melodramatic plotting get very tiresome very quickly.
It's also a bit unclear whether this is intended to be a straight drama (in which case it's ridiculous), or a playful black comedy (in which case it's just not funny enough). At one point there's a murderous struggle between two major characters resulting in a death, and the audience I was with seemed distinctly unsure as to whether they were supposed to be laughing or not.
I honestly do like Woody Allen and will generally cut him some slack (I'm still watching his films after sitting through Whatever Works, after all), but Irrational Man is substandard fare. Not for the first time, you can make out that Allen has a sour and cynical message to deliver about morality and human nature, but he fumbles the delivery of it to the extent that you're not entirely sure what it is, despite the best efforts of a talented cast. Better luck next year.