As a native Rhode Islander, I was all geared up to enjoy Woody Allen’s new film, Irrational Man, set in the Ocean State. The movie’s premise, that higher education can leave someone cold and isolated, is something – at least in theory – I can relate to. The problem was that Irrational Man was so lifeless and lazy that I could not connect to any of the central players.

Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a depressed 40-ish philosophy professor trying find meaning in his life. The academic and his college student Jill, played by Emma Stone, eavesdrop on a dinner conversation, which Abe interprets as an existential epiphany. Things get complicated when a simple act turns his world upside down. 

Having seen 20 plus Woody Allen films, I must acknowledge specific patterns in his movies that begin to emerge a lot:

1. Intellectual(s) in the midst of a life crisis

2. Conflict between the mind and body

3. Full scenes done in one long master shot

These tropes are all part of Irrational Man, but the entire film lacks the cohesion of Allen’s earlier work. I should note that I find it almost impossible to review a Woody Allen film and not compare it to the rest of his resume. The 79-year old writer/director has been making films since the 1960’s and is essentially the Bob Dylan of Hollywood.

I found the tone of Woody Allen’s Rhode Island murder mystery very hard to grasp. If Allen was going for suspense, like he executed so well in 2005’s Match Point, then he failed big time. The characters in Irrational Man are one-dimensional and speak in a detached monotone. Joaquin Phoenix is basically playing a drab version of his character from The Master; Emma Stone seems only to be there to fill Allen’s hallmark younger-girl-smitten-by-a-mysterious-older-man character.

If we shift the context of the film a bit and assume that Allen was aiming to make a dark comedy in the vein of Crimes and Misdemeanors, then Irrational Man becomes somewhat redeemable. One dinner table scene about murder protocol had me laughing out loud. Whether that was the filmmaker’s intention, however, was not entirely clear to me.

This biggest fault lies in the screenplay. Irrational Man felt like a blindfolded Woody Allen took all of his best scripts, cut them up, and threw the pieces in a hat. From that hat, he extracted the random plot fragments that would be pasted into a passable script.

A key line that sums up my thoughts on Irrational Man: “So much of philosophy is just verbal masturbation”. When we read between the lines, perhaps Woody Allen himself is speaking, using Abe Lucas as a mouthpiece? Is Allen getting tired of filmmaking and just going through the motions?

I am proud to say Woody Allen has made a film in my home state, using locations where I have actually set foot. But realistically, it’s just Rhode Island, not Manhattan.

Curtis Parvin, 8/14/2015

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