By Megan Bianco
It’s gotten to the point where you have to wonder if Woody Allen is just trolling everyone by not even bothering to cover up all of his predictable tropes in his recent films. After the huge success of his ode to Tennessee Williams with “Blue Jasmine“ (2013), which was awkwardly followed by a public letter from adopted daughter Dylan Farrow claiming he molested her, and then backlash over the Broadway return of “Bullets Over Broadway” for featuring white performers, the acclaimed filmmaker has progressed from disappointment to mediocrity. While “Magic in the Moonlight” was a failure on a handful of levels last year, “Irrational Man“ is just underwhelming cliché after cliché.
At a Rhode Island university, Professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) transfers to the philosophy department while in the middle of an existential depression and alcohol addiction. One of his new students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), is happily dating a fellow student, Roy (Jamie Blackley), and quickly idolizes Abe for his deep, yet bleak, outlook on life. At the same time Abe begins an affair with another professor on campus, Rita Edens (Parker Posey), who is unhappily married.
By the end of the film there is also a murder plot line thrown into the mix and lots of conversations about the meaning of life throughout. While “Magic in the Moonlight“ suffered from too many simultaneous themes, “Irrational Man” plays it safe by just offering everything you would expect from Allen. Where was the effort here? All of the themes and tropes have already been used before, and more fluidly. The older professor/younger student pairing has appeared between Allen and Juliette Lewis in “Husbands and Wives” (1992), the murder-intrigue angle famously in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), “Match Point” (2005) and at the center of “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993). The dialogue, with its usual Woody-isms, sounds more parody than genuine from the cast’s delivery, and the same jazz beat played constantly throughout the film becomes tiring. At least “Irrational Man” doesn’t succumb to casual racism as “Moonlight” did.
Phoenix, who is usually stellar even in terrible movies, passively acts out the first half of the story rather than coming across as morbid and hams it up in the second half. Even more distracting is the pot belly he sports for Abe’s alcoholism. The worst of all is that Stone, an avid fan of Allen’s filmography and coming off an Oscar nomination five months ago, is the only one making an effort and is being wasted with subpar material.
Allen has shown that despite his inconsistency, he still has the ability to make a great film, as was proven with “Blue Jasmine” and “Midnight in Paris” (2011). But for the first time in his 50-year–long career, perhaps it’s time to take a break. But his next movie already in production and a mini-series for Amazon lined up suggest otherwise. Perhaps he’s too busy to care? Irrational Man isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable either.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.
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