Maybe people are so willing to read latter-day Woody Allen movies as backhanded personal reflections on his life because it's so hard to know how to read them otherwise. Films like Whatever Works, Magic In The Moonlight, and From Rome With Love are arch but not particularly funny, and straight-faced but not particularly serious. They're packed with philosophical quotations, references, and blather, but seem to lack an actual philosophy. There's a sense that Allen isn't playing tongue-in-cheek, so much as wedging his tongue randomly and experimentally into every other cranial orifice, just to see what happens.
That mixture of self-importance and self-dismissing fluff is particularly pronounced in Allen's latest film, the grating shaggy-dog story Irrational Man. The film seems divided against itself on a fundamental level: it announces its lack of sympathies with protagonist Abe Lucas in its title, then throws all its narrative sympathy in Abe's direction. Some critics have read the movie as reflecting Allen's public fight with adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in 2014, with The New York Times as forum and intermediary. Irrational Man has been read as the latest salvo in that battle, given its contemptuous view of the legal system and its focus, so familiar in Allen's films, on the overwhelming attraction younger women have for troubled older men. But while Allen's state of mind may have crept into the script, Irrational Man hardly seems clear-headed enough to serve as any sort of manifesto. It feels telling, though, that while the film's protagonist is an unrepentant, cold-blooded killer, the movie's real villain for most of its runtime is the younger woman who has a crush on him, and won't take no for an answer.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe, a newly arrived philosophy professor at Rhode Island's fictional Braylin College. He's a shambling mess — potbellied and sleepy-eyed, with a well-used flask of single malt in his pocket and a bad case of writer's block to go with his bad case of the mumbling ennuis. "Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation," he tells his class, offhandedly dismissing his entire field of study. Even so, he immediately becomes a campus lust object, as students and a married staffer, Rita (Parker Posey) fixate on his broody attitude and a rumored tragic past. ("I kind of like the burnout look," one beautiful college girl tells her friends. And so the myth of the irresistible dad-bod continues.)
What's a schlubby guy to do, with all these women after his Lucky Charms?
Among the smitten is Abe's student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone, also star of Allen's previous feature, 2014's cute-until-it's-infuriating Magic In The Moonlight). Jill doesn't see her vanilla-pudding boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley) as any barrier to her attempts to bed Abe, but she doesn't see any reason to break up with him, either. When Roy protests her infatuation and inability to talk about anything but Abe's impressive worldliness ("He's done every drug, but hates them all," she gushes), she dismisses him as paranoid and jealous, even once she's actively pursuing that infatuation. She's a woman who knows what she wants, and she mostly wants to be an emasculating, hypocritical shrew. Rita hits the same notes from the other side, pressuring Abe for sex behind her husband's back — what's a schlubby guy to do, with all these cheating women after his Lucky Charms?
Irrational Man follows two primary tracks, both built around self-mythologizing and the blinding force of personal fantasies. In one, the depressed, impotent Abe perks up when he sets his sights on murdering a family-court judge after overhearing a miserable woman telling her friends how the judge wronged her in a custody case. Abe decides killing the judge would be justified, because he'd be ridding the world of a presumably terrible man. As a side bonus, murder would be an authentic, decisive experience in a mostly meaningless world. Meanwhile, Jill doggedly pressures the unwilling Abe to sleep with her, with the exact same sort of sociopathic self-justifications. She feels her interest in him obligates him; she even demands he finally bed her because it's her birthday. His complete lack of interest — in her body, in sex, even in life — is irrelevant compared to the image she's built of their relationship.
Allen's characters are far from any form of believable humanity
There's a hint of a clever gender reversal in the Abe / Jill relationship. Jill aggressively pushes the relationship's physical boundaries, vocally protesting being friend-zoned. Abe resists her advances with a series of face-saving, feminine "soft no" excuses like "You could do better" and "You don't want to be involved with an extremist like me," instead distancing himself from her, or flatly pointing out the ethical conflict (and firing risk) of a professor / student relationship. But the film doesn't follow through on anything it starts to imply about modern men and women, or the stereotypes they fall into. The Abe / Jill business gets a perfunctory, apathetic resolution and moves on.
The murder plot and the subsequent angst, familiar from Allen's Crimes And Misdemeanors, plays out at much more length, but with little more resolution. Jill and Abe alternate narrating the film, in what comes to feel like both of them testifying at an eventual murder trial, though Jill's voiceover in particular could double as a particularly pretentious journal. The narration leads to a funny moment or two — it becomes clear how mismatched the leads are when she's thinking about love while he's thinking about killing — but mostly, it piles on stilted, unlikely phrasing that highlights how far these characters are from any form of believable humanity. This is a movie where "Are you having one of your morbid insights on the transient futility of life?" counts as a come-on.
That sort of Allenist heightened dialogue might be wryly funny, except that Phoenix and Stone both play their roles with such grim, straight-faced, humorless determination, it's hard not to imagine Allen standing just off-camera, yelling, "Grimmer! No smiling!" into a megaphone. Posey, normally a larger-than-life comic presence, plays Rita through gritted teeth and a single fixed expression. This isn't a film of light touches and playful nuance.
Yes, Abe's a murderer, but Jill's annoying
It also isn't a film of meaningful conclusions or cogent thoughts. It veers back and forth about whether it wants to condemn Abe's actions: somehow, his murder plot still draws sympathy. Abe honestly seems to think he's helping not just the judge's seeming victim, but the world at large, and it's hard to resent his murder of an offscreen nonentity, especially when the act so thoroughly revitalizes him and the film. Jill's sexual scheming is less excusable, given that it affects a much more visible character, that it's pitched so shrilly, and that her sexual demands become so ploddingly redundant. Yes, Abe's a murderer, but Jill's annoying.
If Allen had pulled back the camera a little to see what the world looks like outside Abe and Jill's fantasy bubbles, he might have reached a larger point about how narcissism blinds people to a larger world without actually erasing it. But larger perspectives have never been Allen's strong suit. He specializes in neurotics with an entertainingly blinkered viewpoint, and he has no interest in taking off the blinkers here. We never find out what happens to the woman Abe's supposedly trying to help; instead, we remain stuck inside Abe and Jill's worldviews, and both are toxic.
Ultimately, though this is a film in which the sexual predation of an obliviously selfish college girl is portrayed as uglier than murder, and that may say more about Allen's worldview than he'd care to admit. But apart from that between-the-lines message, the film doesn't communicate much. Like so many of Allen's recent films, it foregrounds its philosophical beliefs, then reminds the audience that it's all just verbal masturbation.
Irrational Man is now playing in select cities, and opens wide on August 7th.