In its analysis of Irrational Man, Rotten Tomatoes mentions “Woody Allen apologists” – this is an unfortunate term that actually perfectly describes people like me – I recognize Allen as one of the greatest cinematic minds of all time, and his streak of making a film every year is almost completely unprecedented – but with that comes the fact that he has made some absolute masterpieces, and some absolutely utter trash. I defend all of his films regardless, and while I recognize he has made some serious duds, I still watch them and enjoy them, because even at his worst, Allen is pretty good. His most recently released film is one I was very excited for, for reasons that I will discuss soon. However, the reception to Irrational Man was that it was generally dull and lifeless – and I have to say, I am a tad bit disappointed in it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it – I just wish it was a better film.
Now if we are talking about streaks, we have to talk about Joaquin Phoenix – his streak of films between 2012 to 2015 is absolutely stunning – from his complex Freddy Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s underrated The Master, to his phenomenal performance as Theodore Twombly in Her, to his hilarious turn as Doc Sportello in the criminally overlooked adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice last year, Phoenix has been choosing interesting projects. Of course, the natural step for any actor is to work with Woody Allen, and I was so excited to hear that Phoenix would be working with Allen on a philosophical dark comedy set on a university campus. Who could resist seeing Phoenix juggling Allen’s dialogue, in a role that would be completely different to anything we’ve seen him in? I consider Phoenix to be the finest actor of his generation, and to see him in such diverse projects allows my belief that he’s an icon in the making to grow exponentially. They say there is no such thing as bad press – the same can be applied for a Woody Allen movie – regardless of the quality of the film, it does help your career and is just a good credit to have on your filmography.
Saying that, it was also one of Phoenix’s most…bizarre performances. It felt like he wasn’t giving it the amount of effort he usually puts into his performances. It is by no means a bad performance, and Phoenix is still very good – but rather he is very good in some selected moments and scenes, and sleepwalking through the others. For some reason, I felt this film was an ill-fit for Phoenix, because I think he is a bit too talented for such a role – he has proven himself to be a great actor, so I wonder how another performer who isn’t known for his powerful acting performances would have fared in this film – someone like Steve Carell or Jason Bateman, who have attempted to be seen as serious actors, would have done well under Allen’s assured direction, and would have surely been a better fit for the film. That isn’t to say Phoenix was bad – it just seemed like something he wasn’t quite right for.
Emma Stone, who seemed to have captivated Allen when they worked together on Magic in the Moonlight (by far a much bigger dud than Irrational Man), and he cast her as a young college student (Stone, despite being 27, still somehow fits the mold of being a university student). Stone doesn’t get to do much heavy lifting in terms of acting here, but she does benefit from the showcase Allen gives her as the moral core of the film. It is clear that Allen has been searching for his next muse – his next Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow. God knows that he has tried in recent years, but none of them seem to create the spark that Keaton and Farrow did. He certainly brings out a very good performance in Stone, but he doesn’t bring out the magical chemistry between her and the script that he clearly desired. Perhaps he will have better luck with the lovely Kristen Stewart in this year’s Cafe Society. Stone is very good in the film, but just like Phoenix, she has been better nearly everywhere else.
Of course, there is one amazing part of this film – Parker Posey. I adore her, and I think she is one of the most underrated and brilliant actresses of all time. The Queen of the Indies, Posey is just absolutely transcendent and talented, and she is given the opportunity to also work with Allen, and she takes a seemingly meaningless, one-note and forgettable supporting role and turns it into one of the best parts (if not the best part) of the entire film, and being the natural scene-stealer she is, she is honestly the entire reason I loved this film. It seems like Allen also noticed a spark, as he cast her in Cafe Society. I think Posey is an actress that fits perfectly into the kind of films Allen makes, and I can only imagine what she would do with a performance like Blue Jasmine. She deserves a breakthrough, because she truly is one of the most underrated actresses working today, and she deserves far more than what she is getting, and perhaps the exposure of being in a Woody Allen film (and Cafe Society is the opening film at Cannes in just under two weeks) will push her career to the place where her talent resides.
Irrational Man is a film that can’t make up its mind – it doesn’t know if it wants to be a dark comedy or a serious philosophical drama or a deranged psychological crime thriller. Genre-bending is something Allen is very good at, but here it didn’t quite work for me. It seemed like Allen was trying to go for Annie Hall by way of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but rather it resulted in a bizarre mix of Curb Your Enthusiasm mixed with How to Get Away with Murder – and while both are great shows, it isn’t very cinematic, and I am not quite sure even Allen knew what tone he was going for here, and perhaps if he had chosen to follow a specific path, it would have resulted in a much better film.
Irrational Man is not in any way a bad film, but it does not show the best sides of Phoenix, Stone or Allen – so I would say it is strictly for fans of them, because they are the only reason I expect anyone would actually watch this film, because I suspect general audiences will be turned off by the heavy philosophical message of this film, and the obscure references will surely become very annoying to those that aren’t interested in the type of neurotic existentialism that Allen provides here (and in many other films). I honestly thought it was a good film, but it was certainly not Allen’s best, not by any stretch of the imagination. But its not a bad film, and if you are mildly interested in any of the aspects of this film, I would check it out. If not, I would give it a miss. I liked it, but it is definitely not for everybody. But to be honest, when you’re Woody Allen, not every film can be a masterpiece, can it?