Sean K. Cureton

Search for Meaninglessness

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on August 8, 2015 at 10:44 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Irrational Man
Directed by Woody Allen
1 ½ out of 4 stars

Irrational Man is about a philosopher named Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who, through a series of convoluted events that make about as much sense as the narrative whole to which they are a part, becomes a calculated murderer driven by existential postulations and an abstract sense of moral justification. At the beginning of Woody Allen’s latest film, Phoenix is depicted making his way to yet another college campus where he has recently taken a highly sought after position within the philosophy department. By all appearances, Phoenix is out of sorts, drinking heavily from a flask that seemingly never ceases to be at hand, and is possessed of a devil-may-care attitude that has given birth to a substantial abdominal paunch belying personal despondency and defeat. Just how Irrational Man transitions from being an impotent comedy of errors and verbal masturbation to a take off on Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train is about as haphazard and illogical as the movie itself. The film is never surprisingly awful, but it is exceptionally ill made, its basic conception of plot and dramatic catharsis so tired and clichéd that any comedy it evokes arises purely from the viewer’s ability to see the seams coming undone around the edges of Allen’s latest failure in novel screenwriting.

As always, Phoenix is a fascinating performer to watch, his powers for immediacy and humanism via his very presence on screen consistently entertaining, even in a film as bad as Irrational Man. Emma Stone on the other hand, who plays Phoenix’s infatuated pupil, suffers in a performance so exceptionally trite that the viewer begins to long for the kind of improvisation and passion so recently enjoyed from her in last year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s almost unbelievable that Stone, who has proven herself alongside the likes of such powerful leading men as Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, should appear in this film where her powers for performance are overcast by a character that is insulting to women in general, and Stone in particular. Stone’s character swoons over Phoenix’s boozy professor to an extent that is unbelievable, her presence meant to stroke the ego of a character obviously meant to stand in for Allen himself, and nothing more. Phoenix exudes something like genuine existential torment, but in his relationship with Stone the film verges into the realm of solipsistic self-involvement, negating viewer engagement of any kind.

But Phoenix, who is the undoubted star and shining light at the end of the dark tunnel that is this film, is not the only interesting facet to pay attention to for the hour and a half that you can choose to waste watching Irrational Man. Parker Posey, who plays a wayward chemistry professor and more age-appropriate lover to Phoenix’s turbid thinker, is yet another innately fascinating screen actor whose inherent charisma makes up for the lack of interest presented in Allen’s script. Posey, like Phoenix, is such a strange character herself that the cliché present on the page is superseded by the effusiveness of her own manner and bearing, her individualism as a performer something to watch in and of itself. In a better film, Posey would be the central protagonist, a la Cate Blanchett in Allen’s far superior tragedy Blue Jasmine of 2013, and Irrational Man’s insipid search for meaning would be rendered a moot point, as per Allen’s presupposition going into each and every one of his films that life has no meaning to begin with. In Phoenix’s woeful typecasting as the Woody Allen character in search of some sort of spiritual fulfillment Posey stands as the clear contrast and answer to Phoenix’s aimless wandering, her character already content to wallow in the ethereal meaninglessness of life itself.

At the beginning of Irrational Man, with Phoenix depicted driving towards the college campus that will serve to bring him to philosophical fruition and peace with what is presented in the film as being a chaotic universe, an answer to life’s search for meaning appears to be at the heart of the film’s rhetorical structure. Indeed, the film’s climactic scene serves as an answer to that very question, with Phoenix scrabbling for purchase in the soil of a world that apparently has no concrete use for him. While Abe Lucas may be the most pompous and ponderous malcontented Woody Allen character yet, Phoenix makes his plight temporarily amusing. In exuding his characteristic deep soulfulness and wounded humanity, Phoenix is allowed to sing however softly, his voice registering lightly with an audience only ever tacitly engaged with a film that takes badness to subterraneous lengths and levels. Through Phoenix, Irrational Man becomes ever so slightly logical and dramatically cathartic, even if his relationship with the far more intriguing character portrayed by Parker Posey is immediately more interesting than the one sustained with Emma Stone, which might be the key failing with Allen’s prowess as a screenwriter in this particular film, Irrational Man concerned with the strivings of the more patently obvious and redundant sex.

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