I’ve slowly come to the realization that whenever a Woody Allen movie hits theaters without an avalanche of hype behind it (unlike the acclaimed Blue Jasmine or Midnight in Paris, his recent standouts), it’s probably pretty terrible. Such is the case with his latest, Irrational Man, which crept into select theaters last weekend with little fanfare, despite starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone. It really says something when an Emma Stone rom-com gets less press than the one where she played an Asian.
Woody Allen has written and/or directed at least one movie every year since 1968, but his Cal Ripken-like streak looks a little less impressive when you’re watching Irrational Man, a script that rightly should’ve ended up half-finished in a trash can somewhere. Maybe this is just throat clearing, a necessary purging, a way for Woody to write through his writer’s block, to exorcise his bad ideas to purify his good ones. If so, kudos to the financiers, you’re doing real service here. But nothing is going to make me want to sit through two hours of conservatively dressed, care-free white people biking through verdant meadows arguing about Kant.
Joaquin Phoenix plays professor Abe Lucas. Everyone wants to screw him because he’s a renegade philosophy professor who doesn’t play by the rules, and already I’m rolling my eyes so hard I need a dramamine patch. He’s introduced through a ridiculous montage which would have us believe that every effete sweater model in a three-state radius is all in a tizzy about the arrival of Braylon University’s rakish new philosophy professor. “He’s very radical,” Emma Stone tells her mom. “That should put some Viagra into the Philosophy Department,” says a random lady. “I loved your essay on the situational ethics of Kant,” Emma Stone tells him when they meet.
Question: What world is this? I’ve been a private school liberal arts grad student myself and even I can’t recognize pastel intellectualism of this magnitude. It feels like some Austen-loving Middlebury applicant’s elaborate escape fantasy while she’s stuck washing dishes at a Jacksonville Dave & Buster’s. “Can you imagine?? Everyone is polite and articulate and sometimes they have spirited discussions about famous thinkers while shopping for cable knits!” (*stares off into distance while spraying buffalo sauce off a steam tray*)
Here are some things the characters do in Irrational Man:
- Go to multiple piano recitals
- Fish off docks
- Attend an open-air cello concert
- Debate the meaning of life on a wind-swept rock overlooking the ocean
- Go on enough strolls, bike rides, picnics, and leisurely lunch dates to fill 10 LL Bean catalogues
At one point, Emma Stone’s friend ends a conversation with the sentence, “Anyway, we should go horseback riding some time!” Apropos of nothing, Bette Midler’s daughter is there.
It’s not that Irrational Man is set in an insular (and probably imaginary) world of rich white intellectuals who constantly overarticulate their feelings, it’s that it never acknowledges that it is. Like really? No one ever so much as jokes about living on the island of misfit scions? Insular can be done, but there was a cinematic intensity to the myopic world of, say, Whiplash – and places where its jazz reality rubbed against outside reality. Irrational Man is just endless bloviating trapped in an echo chamber made of button downs.
So anyway, Abe Lucas shows up to campus, where his student Emma Stone worships him, and his fellow professor played by Parker Posey wants to run away with him, and the only one not taken with Abe, wouldn’t you know it, is Abe. He drinks single malt from a flask, stares off into the distance (usually while standing on a dock), tells his students things like “let’s face it, much of philosophy is verbal masturbation,” and can scarcely be bothered to even enjoy banging all the chicks that want to bang him. WHAT WILL MAKE HIM CARE?! WHAT WILL MAKE ME CARE?! According to Irrational Man, it’s only when a man has lost all hope that he gains irresistible sex appeal.
I noted this same phenomenon in The Gambler (though obviously, it’s been around a lot longer than that). My question: did being an existential blowhard actually get you pussy in the seventies or was it always just wish fulfillment for pussy-obsessed blowhards who happened to be popular in the seventies? In any case, it’s really hard to watch Emma Stone fall in love with Joaquin-Phoenix-as-Woody-Allen’s-nihilisitic-stand-in without wanting to shout “OH COME ON!” every five seconds.
College students get seduced by their professors all the time, sure, but Irrational Man suffers from a similar problem as Magic in the Moonlight: Woody’s too-old male protagonist spends the entire first half of the movie explaining why he’s not going to bang Emma Stone, only to end up banging Emma Stone. You think the twist is going to be that Woody isn’t going to pull that one again, but surprise! Double twist, he totally is! By the way, everyone seems pretty blasé about a professor banging one of his undergrads. I’m pretty sure you at least have to hide that kind of thing from other professors.
As it says in the official synopsis, everything changes when Professor Lucas decides to commit an “existential act.” I won’t spoil what that is, but suffice it to say, onto this cringeworthy, not-especially-believable rom-com, Woody ladles a half-baked crime plot. An act the characters of course talk to death before an ending that felt like he was just trying to put this script out of its misery. Great decision, if only it had come sooner.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.