The new Woody Allen film, Irrational Man, is neither one to win over those unfamiliar with the director’s style, nor one to please his current fans
In order to write a film review, it would normally be assumed that a critic has to hold a certain degree of foreknowledge. Having some idea of a director’s style, their techniques or any recurrent themes in their work can only assist in understanding what their new film might be trying to do.
Going into Django Unchained without having first experienced Quentin Tarantino’s early work might leave a viewer feeling downright confused, and similarly, anyone as excited as I am for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, needs to really have seen all the franchise’s preceding films for as to properly experience the plot (perhaps excluding anything a little too Jar Jar Binks-y).
It was therefore with a certain degree of trepidation that I went to see Irrational Man on Saturday evening, a night that will now forever stick out in my memory as the night that I finally lost my Woody Allen virginity. Simply sacrilegious of course, but apart from catching the end of Midnight in Paris on BBC2 late one evening, I have yet to properly experience the charm that I have been told is ever-present in Allen’s work.
Owing to my own ignorance I was therefore forced to take Irrational Man—the latest in Allen’s half-century career in film-making—simply as I saw it, ignoring, as any critic really should, the director’s enormous collection of accolades, acclaim and esteem. It was in this take-it-as-you-find-it sense that the film felt like quite the disappointment. Laboured, unrealistic and, dare I say it, lazy, Irrational Man felt rather like the product of a writer and director drawling towards the latter stages of his career.
The plot is set up in a familiar fashion, Joaquin Phoenix playing a Philosophy professor struggling with depression and failing to discover any meaning in his life or in his budding romance with a twenty-something student of his, played by Emma Stone. Upon overhearing a chance conversation in a diner, Phoenix’s character begins to obsess over the idea of a perfect murder, one that might finally reinvigorate his seemingly joyless existence.
Amid swathes of philosophical discussion on the subject of murder, punishment and morality, the story floats in and out of focus, lightly touching upon vastly complicated ethical issues without any real depth, humour or suspense. Because of my lack of Woody Allen knowledge, I was forced to watch Irrational Man a little on the surface, yet ironically there doesn’t seem to be much else to it.
Once you remove, as discussed by Joaquin Phoenix’s character, the “theoretical world of philosophical bullshit,” there doesn’t seem to be a lot left, aside from some examples of beautifully subtle cinematography and a number of, frankly, unnecessary moments of crude product placement. Parts are well-acted. A couple of mildly funny gags are thrown into the mix and the Woody Allen film-a-year train rolls on.
The saddest thing for me, as I dejectedly made my way home, was that the last film that I felt like watching any time soon was Annie Hall.