For at least for the past decade or so, there seems to be a pattern with Woody Allen’s annual film releases: for every great film, there are two mediocre-to-abysmal films. 2013’s Blue Jasmine is a late-career highlight for Allen, which seems to dictate that Irrational Man, like last year’s Magic in the Moonlight, will find Allen in weaker territory. Despite the best attempts of a game cast, including a notable off-kilter performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Irrational Man is more than just a weaker entry in Allen’s filmography. It’s also an uncomfortable reminder of Woody Allen, the man, as seen by the world in 2015.
Abe Lucas arrives at Braylin College as an alcoholic who’s also impotent, but he has an apparent history of being brilliant, if the talk around campus from students and faculty members (notably, mostly women) holds any truth. Abe eventually finds himself between two women: Rita Richards (Parker Posey), a married colleague who wants to leave her husband and run away to Spain, and Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), an undergrad who becomes Abe’s confidante on campus and the inspiration for Abe’s way out of his malaise – a perfect murder.
The murder plot marks a shift in the film from one uncomfortable reading into Allen’s life to a more disturbing one. In the former, there’s the nth example of an older man/younger woman romance in Jill’s pursuit of Abe. It’s not quite as unseemly as when Allen paired Stone with Colin Firth in Magic in the Moonlight, but it’s still unsettling, particularly compared to Allen’s own history with women, culminating in his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. But the murder conspiracy is something else entirely.
While out at lunch, Abe and Jill overhear a woman in tears tell her friends about a corrupt family court judge. Abe becomes obsessed with murdering the judge as a means of justice for society, and he believes he can get away with it because neither he nor Jill have a personal connection to the judge. In Allen’s life, he’s been bombarded with allegations that he molested Dylan Farrow, his adopted daughter with Mia Farrow, and in some of his attempts to defend himself, he’s asserted that the judge in charge of custody evaluations was ethically dubious. With that in mind, the ensuing plot reads like Allen’s personal fantasy: murdering the judge who kept him away from the daughter he’d been accused of molesting. Regardless of one’s thoughts on Allen’s private life, it’s a disturbing vision Allen’s laid out here, regardless of how upbeat he tries to make it. And keeping in mind he wrote and directed this in the months after the 2014 resurgence of the Dylan Farrow allegations in the press, it seems like a significant influence in the story.
Even without this worrisome aspect, though, Irrational Man comes across as part of Allen’s lesser work. The script requires the characters to speak like intellectuals, but the dialogue is incredibly stilted. Phoenix and Stone, as the primary characters and co-narrators, both work to make Allen’s script work in different ways. Stone, to her credit, works hard to sell Jill’s infatuation with Abe. She also infuses Allen’s dialogue with an energy that’s sorely needed. Stone has proven through her back-to-back collaborations with Allen that, if he’d give her the material he’s given to previous muses like Diane Keaton, Scarlett Johansson and Cate Blanchett, she’d easily join their company. Phoenix’s approach is a bit more questionable, especially since his performance should be easier. It’s far more believable to think that Abe would be interested in someone like Jill; she’s beautiful, intelligent, and fascinated by him. But goodness, Abe is insufferable, and Phoenix’s understated approach demonstrates nothing that would make it conceivable that Jill, or Rita, would be interested in him. And Posey, honestly, is wasted here. She does what she can to bring Rita to life, but the material isn’t there. (Side note: I’d love to see Stone and Posey collaborate more extensively in another feature. They work well together.)
In any case, Irrational Man will likely go down as one of Allen’s lesser works. More than that, though, it shows Allen further blurring the line between his private life and his art, to an uncomfortable degree. Allen’s cranked out one film a year for decades now, but Irrational Man shows that it might be time for Allen to slow down, if not retire outright.