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Cannes 2015: Woody Allen's 'Irrational Man' Is Stubbornly Inept and Pig-Headedly Out of Touch

By Caspar Salmon | Film | May 15, 2015 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | May 15, 2015 |

Irrational Man marks a turning point in cinema, for it is the first film to be one hundred percent devised by algorithm. I’m told that once Woody Allen had come up with the equation “(Match Point/Crimes and Misdemeanors x jazz score + Emma Stone again + [John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway x Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity - Woody Allen, to the power of mansplaining]) - Bergman”, he didn’t even need to write or direct the film, it just made itself.

Woody Allen, to repeat the old joke, has made his film again. Irrational Man finds him at his most stubbornly inept, his most pig-headedly out of touch, doing mulishly once more the things that have been his stock in trade for decades. The film tells the story of Abe Lucas, a professor of philosophy about whom we are repeatedly told in painful exposition scenes and laboured voice-over that he is fascinating and dangerous and intelligent and doesn’t abide by rules. Abe arrives as a new teacher at a university and strikes up a friendship that turns to romance with Jill, a promising and naive young student who (of course!) finds his braininess and nihilism devastatingly attractive. The story takes a turn when Abe starts to devise and then carry out the murder of a local judge: with sledgehammer references to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the professor justifies this killing to himself by making some arguments about moral relativism that are taken straight from Philosophy 101 For Morons. Will Jill find out? How will it affect their budding relationship? Who cares? The film answers two of these questions.

Nothing in this film works. The characters’ names — Abe, Jill, Rita — ring false: too old-fashioned for each person by about 25 years; too pointed. The costumes and hair and make-up are a drag: Emma Stone is saddled with a seemingly endless array of floaty tops and dresses in a variety of colours ranging from white to cream via off-white, while Parker Posey (playing Rita, a woman who dares to be over 30) gets given a Valerie Cherish hairdo: one of many acts of cruelty visited on her by a Woody Allen at peak misanthropy.

Other things that go wrong include the editing (some brutal scene cuts and tacky fade-edits make the film seem cobbled together), the music (when I need a jazz cover of the Mamas and the Papas I’ll go to the worst bar in my grandmother’s seaside town, thank you) and the directing. Once you notice the poverty of Allen’s directing of actors it becomes mesmerising and you can’t stop seeing further instances of it. Here are Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix, wandering aimlessly from a point of mid-distance, past the camera and out of shot. Over and over again, a scene will start with someone pausing a split second before going down some stairs. Outside a shop, characters will exchange three lines each before, on some sort of weird tacit understanding, walking together towards the camera and standing in front of it, pursung their conversation there for no reason. At a party, seven actors will stand in a helpful semi-circle so that the camera can see all of their faces. The actors are literally directed wrong: they haven’t been told where to go, because Allen isn’t interested in movement, in pictures, in action: he merely wants the actors to recite his lines. Situations seem to occur at random: here are Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone again, at a funfair or by the sea or at a concert. These scenes feel contrived, because Allen hasn’t thought about why his characters might be in these places: he just needs them to be doing something while they say his lines.

And what lines! Woody Allen has long ago given up any pretence of connection with a world you or I might recognise, but this film unleashes some real pearls. I suffer when an actor of Joaquin Phoenix’s stature and integrity is required to utter a line like “I looked it up on my computer.” You what? On your what? I think Woody is trying to tell us that Abe looked it up on the net, or you might even say web — or, these days, you would probably simply say you looked it up, and assume that your interlocutor was aware of the existence of the internet. Poor Emma Stone is lumbered with these lines, which I interpret almost as an acting challenge, to see if she can make them sound in any way plausible or human:

“I don’t have the intellect to refute these arguments.”
(In a restaurant) “I love that you order for me.”
“Don’t tapdance with me, Abe.”
(In voice-over) “He was so damn fascinating.”

The screenplay low-point comes when Rita asks Abe to run away with her and he replies, “Where to? Tahiti, like Paul Gauguin?” These lines are bankrupt: false, out of time, un-witty and stilted. It’s like watching a 90-minute-long New Yorker cartoon.

The actors try their damnedest to carry this hogwash. Emma Stone is so likable, so natural, so game: as a viewer you root for her — not for her character, Jill, but for Emma Stone, the actor. You spend every scene urging her to rise above this, to succeed in portraying someone; unfortunately, even someone of Stone’s ability can’t pull it off. Jill is written as perky and apparently intelligent, but she is reduced to mooning over Abe and comes across as foolish and one-dimensional. Joaquin Phoenix, reprising his belly from I’m Still Here and looking like a Dadbod Roger Federer, can’t invest his character with any credibility. Abe’s brilliance is permanently stated in voiceover, but doesn’t emanate from Phoenix’s performance; his despair and then renewed taste for life don’t come across well, either. Thankfully these aspects of his character are also pointed out to us in voiceover on many occasions. Joaquin Phoenix is the best actor of his generation, so the fact that even he can’t inject humanity and complexity into his character speaks volumes about how poorly Allen devised it.

A smattering of plus points include the photography by Darius Khondji, who conjures the film’s only memorable image when we see a kiss between Abe and Jill’s distorted reflections in a funhouse mirror. And Allen’s plotting is reasonably sharp, although the plot’s arch twists only serve to underline how flippant and mean his worldview is.

Why does Woody Allen do this? He doesn’t need the money. Who does he think he’s doing it for? Does he care about making a worthwhile contribution to art, or is he now just so used to churning out one film every year that he can and does do it in his sleep? As long as the world keeps tolerating or even celebrating his fantasies, he will carry on. He must already be devising the algorithm for his next film.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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