Rationality Proves Allusive
Reviewed in this article: Irrational Man, a film by Woody Allen. Sony Pictures Classics, 2015, 96 minutes.
WOODY ALLEN GETS NO RESPECT. His latest film hasn’t even been out for three weeks, and it looks like it’ll be lucky to enjoy a fourth. The man’s unsavory personal life might have something to do with it; audiences seem more comfortable with the screwball Woody than the existential one. That says more about the audience than the work, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t on to something. Secret crimes and absent punishment, insatiable hearts (if that is the operative organ) — the auteur has an extremely consistent set of concerns. Is it any wonder people flocked to the funny accents and mummified canon of Midnight in Paris, only to utterly ignore his next two films? Which is a shame, because Irrational Man is as good a film as any he’s made in his late period, which has given us some damn good films.
Irrational Man is a difficult film to discuss without giving away the game: a philosophy prof (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at some generic New England Ivy for the summer semester, preceded by rumors of tragedy and debauchery; a fellow professor (Parker Posey) and one of his students (Emma Stone) are both instantly smitten; there’s a twist. That’ll do. Posey and Stone turn in marvelous, subtle performances, taking full advantage of the rich roles Allen has consistently written for women (more so than any other American director; ironic, given that he’s the object of such understandable opprobrium by feminist critics). If the dialogue isn’t hilarious — it’s been a long time since Woody was hilarious — it’s still rife with the amusing name-dropping and Philosophy 101 and superficial grasp of high culture that Allen’s characters use to gussy up the banality of their motives. The film unspools through complementary voice-overs (Phoenix and Stone); if Allen doesn’t make as much out of the device as he might, it’s still integral to the film’s resolution. Nothing is irrelevant, and what seems like a summer trifle is really yet another carefully constructed trap.
Irrational Man begins as one of the two films Allen has made in his late period, and then pivots into the other in its second act. The transition is effortless, a testament to his command of both genres, and once it’s accomplished it’s clear the film was heading in this direction all along. Suddenly you’re watching an examination of the categorical imperative that could even be taken to speak to the question of German guilt, and all that philosophy doesn’t seem quite so superficial. Ultimately it’s proof that a sophisticated vocabulary, a certain amount of cultural literacy, is no defense.
Whether we’re undone by our failed attempts at rationality or a more fundamental irrationality is a tough call. Critics have argued Allen has nothing new to say on the subject, but they’re not paying attention to which voice is still speaking at the end. Decades of variations on the theme, and this is the first time he’s hit this one. If that wasn’t enough, we witness what is probably the best single shot in one of Allen’s films since his ostensible mid-period pinnacle: a man standing before the sun, his silhouette shimmering and approaching dissolution as his lover reconsiders him. All lazy, middle-class filmmaking should give us a cinematic synthesis that sublime.
Nicholas Jahr is a member of our editorial board and a regular contributor to jewishcurrents.org. He is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.