Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Irrational Man

(Woody Allen, USA, 2015)

A slight helping of late-Woody Allen fare.  Much of Irrational Man's virtues feel separate from the influence of the director - Darius Khondji's saturated colors and crisp compositions,  the adroit work of the cast - Emma Stone, Joaquin Pheonix, Parker Posey - all working from an under-cooked script. Allen has always been a skilled storyteller, that least-sexy of cinematic virtues, and his recent films have been well-told yarns, if little else.  The structure of Irrational Man is sound enough, but the on a line-by-line basis, it's a mess.  If you're willing to suffer through the schematic, clunky dialogue, there is an interesting existential tale beneath it all, but even that has its limits.

This amounts to Allen playing through his familiar philosophical obsessions, which involve an appropriately neurotic skepticism of objective morality.  He doesn't break any new ground here, but does rehearse the theme with economy and some occasional flourishes of wit.  The best joke in the film is the repeated use of a jaunty instrumental rendition of The 'In' Crowd by Ramsey Lewis, which seems more bizarre and discordant as the plot develops and Pheonix's character slips deeper into the moral abyss. 

Allen's increasingly sketch-like treatment of his themes can be frustrating, especially because he once excelled at rendering on-screen human behavior convincingly.   In his late period, he has essentially subcontracted this skill out to the actors, who too often feel like they are absent direction, showing up for the pleasure/distinction of being in a Woody Allen movie, and doing their best impression of a Woody Allen character.  Meanwhile, Allen  moves the shooting briskly along with an attitude that feels more like impatience than eagerness to engage deeply with the material.

Nonetheless, there is an intensity at work here in Irrational Man.  Allen is clearly still troubled by idea of God's absence; if anything, the approach of mortality has only deepened his ambivalence about one's final resting place.  One easily gets the impression of Allen as someone who has been tempted by sin (and even, potentially, yielded to this temptation), and who has turned this into the central story of his life: a basically decent guy who has encountered his darkest demons and has never gotten over the experience.  We're likely to see more of this kind of thing from Woody before he gives up the ghost; personally, I'm hoping he deepens and refines it, but we'll just have to see.

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