Monday, August 24, 2015

Irrational Man

When you grow up watching the films of Woody Allen, you develop a problem.  I mean, you probably develop any number of problems if we're being honest, but one of the biggest ones is that you still go every damn year to get that dose of wandering eloquence and bitter banter you need.  This is, of course, even though you know that the film it's housed in will likely disappoint you.  This is, too, even though you know that you would be better served pressing play on yet another repeat viewing of an old favorite.  Still, you go.  When you do, you can't really talk about it. This is because when you talk about it the conversation is always the same aimless insular ranking of the director's oeuvre. It almost doesn't matter that a Woody Allen film is a film at all. We've kinda stopped talking about them as products that might entertain on any merits beyond how they match up to the filmmaker's other works.  So, with Irrational Man the conversation is yet another repetition: is it a good or bad Woody Allen Film?  Do we like seeing Joaquin Phoenix in this construct we call the Woody Allen Film? Do we feel like Parker Posey should have been here - in this thing called the Woody Allen Film - long ago?  

For my money, Irrational Man sits in an the middle of the Allen spectrum and is an ok movie beyond the Woody Allen Film canon.  It's an organized piece of work that manages to invert aspects of a traditional crime film and blend them with a kind of thought experiment.  Joaquin Phoenix is Abe, a miserable, alcoholic philosophy professor stalled in his latest project and searching for stimulation beyond the routine academic calendar.  He's a polemic enough public figure, and in his personal life embodies an archetype: the troubled academic, a type of romantic figure that proves fascinating to both his students and his peers.  As such, Abe quickly accumulates admirers to stroke his ego and engage him in distracting conversation.  One is a peer, Rita (Parker Posey), the other - in true Allen fashion - is Jill (Emma Stone) a precocious student who preaches the gospel of Abe to her parents, her boyfriend, and to anyone willing to listen.  As Abe becomes obsessed with a ethical question to the point of talking himself into committing a murder, the film slowly transforms into something that can't quite decide whether it wants to be about the human aftermath or the cold philosophy behind it.  This is, oddly, appropriately dealt with in the film's triangulation of characters: what matters? When does it matter? Who does it matter to and why?  As it turns out, if you think about the film in the way Abe himself would, the ideas pan out.  If you think about it as a narrative piece of entertainment, well, the results are a little more mixed.
What Irrational Man gets right may actually be rooted in its stereotypes.  Allen has always been adept at carving out space for both a fetishization of a type of intellectual while also viciously satirizing them, and the film nails the idea of misplaced adoration.  Jill's fascination with Abe is, in this case, clearly absurd throughout the film in much the same way that Abe's sense of his own gravitas is made fun of, and the result is something that almost manages to be a meta-commentary on the ridiculousness of some of the arrangements previously covered in earlier Allen films.  Here, we totally get it: Abe is a washed-up loser running on fumes, Jill is a pitch-perfect product of academic parents (we learn her mom and dad teach in the music department) who relishes the intellectual attention of a person she has learned to respect through his past writings.  She has a strange power here, and the film makes an effort to give her the credit she deserves and expand her role beyond the crushed out disciple she wants to be and draw her into a space where she can become the teacher.  All things considered, it's interesting and admirable in spite of the fact the murderous plot points don't quite allow for the characters to grow organically.  Irrational Man gets in its own way just as the characters botch their own lives, but along the way it participates in an interesting game.  It might not be a revolutionary Woody Allen Film, but it's at least a halfway entertaining movie.

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