Woody Allen is cinema’s wonder man, having turned out roughly a movie a year for nearly 45 years. It takes a nimble mind to write, shoot and frequently star in so many smart, intelligent, often very funny movies so quickly and over so many years.
Occasionally Allen does stumble though and a movie falls flat. The percentages are still very much in his favor but stumbles are bound to happen. “Irrational Man” is a stumble.
While it concerns themes common to past Allen movies, it falls about as flat as an Allen film can. It’s enough of a flatliner, in fact, to make you appreciate Woody Allen all the more: Yes, he can make a movie as poor as ‘Irrational Man” but rarely does.
He has certainly assembled a fine cast, working with Joaquin Phoenix for the first time and bringing back Emma Stone from “Magic in the Moonlight.” The third key role goes to Parker Posey, the former indie-film “It” girl who brightens up any movie.
Frequent collaborator Darius Khondji provides textured wide-screen cinematography that gives real beauty to a fictional Rhode Island university town where the story takes place. Meanwhile designer Santo Loquasto, a collaborator with Allen over 28 films, gives that unmistakable lived-in quality to the film’s houses, apartments, lecture halls and labs.
Allen’s stumbles usually happen when he abandons his sophisticated humor for a “serious” film. In terms of Allen’s own oeuvre, “Irrational Man” contains overtones of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point” with a Dostoyevsky overlay.
Allen doesn’t do serious well though, largely because he’s really doing serious, and much better serious, when cracking jokes and creating brilliant comedy out of the confusions, chaos and desperation that beset contemporary men and women.
When he sets his mind in a “serious” mode, however, his stories come out feeling like graphic instructional films meant to illustrate some existential point about morality and randomness in a God-less universe.
His “serious” characters are never funny — well, not in the right sort of way — but rather morose, gloomy creatures with furrowed brows from all those big thoughts plaguing them. They’re the people he makes fun of in his comedies.
There’s a deadness at the center of such scenarios, around which characters drift as they walk and talk and walk some more, sometimes even striding silently across that wide screen without a viewer having any inkling of where they might be going.
Worse yet, the talk tells you about the characters and their various dilemmas rather than showing this through behavior or action. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a maid picking up the telephone as the curtain rises on Act One to tell a caller all the backstories for the main characters — the master has left the wife for a mistress while the son is in rehab and the daughter having an affair with the underaged boy downstairs.
Thus, “Irrational Man” begins with everyone in a small New England campus town gossiping about the new philosophy professor — his colorful love life, global crusades and overwhelming depression. Then dual narrators take over.
One is the angst-ridden professor himself, Abe (Phoenix), as he drives into town. The other is an intellectually curious student Jill (Stone), a daughter of two music professors, who fixates on this suffering man even before she sets eyes on him.
The coffee klatch gossip about this apparent superstar professor brings in another woman destined to get untangled in his life. This would be Rita (Posey), a lonely science professor looking to escape a dreary marriage in a passionate affair with this Hamlet-like philosopher.
Such is his ennui he can’t even perform sexually for Rita. As for Jill, who follows him everywhere like a puppy — to the increasing annoyance of her boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) — he puts her off in hopes of keeping things platonic. For a while at least.
His lectures are the greatest hits of Kant, Kierkegaard and Sartre. Meanwhile he’s blocked in writing a new book and little wonder: “Just what the word needs,” he mutters. “Another book on Heidegger and Fascism.”
Then, in a poorly staged scene, he and Jill overhear two couples talking in the cafe booth behind them, a long discussion about the cruel unfairness of a local judge about to rule in a child custody case involving one of the women and her ex-husband.
Instantly Abe hatches a scheme, which he only confides in voiceover to viewers and not his two women, to commit a perfect existential act to restore order and justice to the world.
At a party earlier, Abe had demonstrated how mentally unhinged his character has become so this scheme comes as no real surprise. Allen means to use this “meaningful act” to explore those big issues of Existence and Randomness of an uncaring world.
As the movie meanders into thriller territory, it does pick up a little energy. But this too bogs down in a nexus of conversations in restaurants, bars, at dinner tables and in more walking and talking as Rita and Jill try to understand what Abe may or may not have done.
This all unfolds at a languorous pace with stiff, unnatural dialogue and implausible relationships. One could complain that the age difference between Phoenix and Stone is downright creepy but that comes with the territory in Woody Allen films.
However, colleges do have strict rules about teacher-student relationships so the sight of these two spooning in public is downright silly. Not to mention the sight of two female rivals sharing a glass of wine and gossip in a bar like the best of buddies.
So everything falls flat — drama, characters, overreaching dialogue. Well, not the acting which is not-so-bad under the circumstances. The ending with a sight flavoring of Hitchcock is equally forced and unconvincing, a thing tacked on to get to The End rather than to arrive at an ending organically.
Never mind. Woody no doubt will be back next year with a new film. Let’s hope for a comedy.
Opens: July 17, 2015 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: Sony Pictures Classics, Gravier Productions, Perdido
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Jamie Blackley, Parker Posey, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg, Robert Petkoff, Tom Kemp
Director-screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Executive producers: Adam B. Stern, Allan Teh, Ronald L. Chez
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Suzy Benzinger
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
R rating, 95 minutes