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 Woody Allen's Irrational Man

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: Woody Allen's Irrational Man   Sun Oct 25, 2015 12:59 am

Throughout Woody Allen's long and sprawling career, he's always been attracted to the themes of death, either dealing directly with it or making a joke out of it. In his early funny ones, he tackled political assassinations in Bananas (1971) and Love and Death (1975). However, as Woody moved further into his later serious films, he would tackle murder and consequences in a more serious manner. Non more so than the serious story in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which had it's lead protagonist in an impossible situation, and uses murder to get out of it, but he's wracked with guilt from resorting to murder, although he didn't commit it, but he has to learn to live with guilt. While Woody tackled the subject of murder again in films like Shadows and Fog (1991), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and Scoop (2006), they tackled death and murder in a more light-hearted way. But, Woody returned to tone and structure of the serious story in Crimes and Misdemeanors when he did Match Point (2005), which again showed when after committing a murder, it can have a terrible psychological effect on our protagonist, and how they have to live with it. Woody repeated this to a slightly lesser effect on Cassandra's Dream (2007), which cranked up the guilt levels to the max. However, for his latest film. Woody does something interesting, instead of the consequences having a negative effect on the protagonist, what if it has a positive effect? Makes the protagonist a better person, and gives them a sunnier outlook on life? This is what Woody aims to show in Irrational Man, and while it might not be Woody's best film, it displays some interesting ideas, and it does ask serious questions on whether there are people who truly deserve to die for being horrible humans.

Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) comes to Braylin College in Rhode Island to teach Philosophy to the students. Although Abe's arrival gets many of the fellow professors on the campus interested, the fact is Abe is suffering an existential crisis, one of his close friends in Iraq was killed, his wife left him and he's an overweight alcoholic. He ends up having a relationship with one of his students Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), who in turn is in a relationship with fellow student Roy (Jamie Blackley). Abe also has a relationship with fellow college professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), who happens to be married. Abe is in a horrendous rut, and he tries to kill himself by a game of Russian Roulette at a student party. However, while out a diner with Jill, Abe overhears a called Carol (Susan Pourfar) in the next booth, telling her friends about her plight at the hands of a cruel and unfair judge called Judge Spangler (Tom Kemp). His creative juices are unlocked and comes up with a perfect plan to murder Judge Spangler, he feels that because he doesn't know Carol, that he won't be suspected of the murder, and he'll be doing Carol an act of kindness. He does it by stealing cyanide from the college's science lab, keeping track of Judge Spangler's movements, and is able to switch a cup of orange juice that the Judge has after a morning jog, with an identical one with cyanide in it. The judge dies, and it rejuvenates Abe creatively and personally. However, he seems to have no guilt about what he's done, and when details about how the Judge died start to get out, Jill starts to worry that Abe might have been responsible, even though he denies it at first, but then Jill discovers the truth, and urges Abe to turn himself in, but Abe is enjoying life too much to care.

It's a low-budget little chamber piece, and it is easy to poke holes in the film, very easily in fact. Woody Allen might be a perfectionist when it comes to how the film will look in his head, but when it comes to actually filming the film, it's no secret that he doesn't waste time filming, there have been occasions on his films where he films one take, and that's it, off to the next scene, and you get the impression that it shows here. Some might argue that it makes the film more natural and less stagy, but any shortcomings are magnified more. Having said that, it does benefit from lovely, sunny cinematography by Darius Khondji, (who worked with Woody on Midnight in Paris (2011), To Rome With Love (2012) and Magic in the Moonlight (2014)), for such a dark film about murder and consequences, it has a very light look, which manages to work in it's favour. As for the script, it does have shortcomings with tiny inconsistencies in terms of the story, and how there's no way this would happen in real life. When it comes to stuff like the philosophy classes, you can tell Woody is in his element, when he has Abe namedropping philosophers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Kant and Heidegger, indeed the film's title, Irrational Man, was taken from a William Barrett's 1958 book Irrational Man: A Study In Existential Philosophy. As we know, existentialism is something that comes up time and again in Woody Allen's films, whereas he usually makes a joke out of it. One line in Irrational Man, where Abe tells his students, "Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation", is the sort of line you'd expect Woody to say in one of his funny films, as he usually tells a masturbation joke. Here, it's said in a serious way, as if Abe is sick of his profession, and is at the end of his tether. Also, the film uses The In Crowd by the Ramsey Lewis Trio as a motif throughout the film, but it does start to wear itself thin after a while.

It's a limited cast, but it's led with confidence and relish by Joaquin Phoenix as Abe, who goes from tormented philosophy professor to born again murderer with a new purpose in life. Had Abe been played by anyone else, it would be fair to say they might have done a Woody Allen impression, but Joaquin thankfully resists all that. He does his own spin on it, a lot more laid back and not neurotic. Though Phoenix's Abe is tense and cross before the thought of murder enters his head, he ends up being rejuvenated and full of joy in the run up to and after the deed. Phoenix is an underrated actor, and he's taken on some challenging roles since his "retirement", like in The Master (2012), Her (2013) and Inherent Vice (2014). But, he does well under the direction of Woody Allen, and for a murderer, Abe is a little bit likable, but not entirely, because he's still a murderer. Emma Stone worked with Woody Allen on Magic in the Moonlight (2014), and she gave a very good performance in that film, and she does the same here. Her Jill is like a voice of reason to Abe, and you can tell Abe wants to tell her what he's done after the murder, but he can't bring himself to telling her, because he's enjoying life too much. But, and without descending too much into spoiler territory, Jill ends up being the cause of Abe's downfall, although not directly, but in more of an ironic way. Parker Posey comes off less successfully, and while Posey is a good actress who has made some good films, her part in Irrational Man feels wasted, her character seems unrealistic and too shrill, and she doesn't give two hoots about Abe's crime. Poor Jamie Blackley is even more wasted than Posey too.





It's a very dark film, very black, but it's tone is very weird, it's like a laid-back, slacker tone, almost like the flipside to the guilt and suffering the main characters in Cassandra's Dream went through. It's a hard task to ask an audience to sympathise with a killer who feels no guilt for his actions, and has a better life for what he did. However, and without giving anything away, the film has a shocking ending, the sort of ending that leaves you cold. But, you realise then, and only then, that the film has worked, sort of. It could have done with a better script, and been more focused on it's characters. But you get what Woody's intentions are, he's trying to question whether any good can come from murder, maybe not for the victim or their family, but for those whose life they made a misery, and for those who committed the murder, as in Abe's case, it gives him happiness and clarity in life. It's not Woody Allen's best film, and it does feel rushed, and he's told this story many times before, although this one has a different perspective. But, as he approached 80, Woody is showing no signs of slowing down, he's doing an opera with Placido Domingo in LA, he's about to do a 6 part TV series for Amazon Prime and he's filming another film at the minute. Most directors his age slow down and retire altogether. Not Woody Allen, not all of his films work, but when they do, they do. It's always exciting to see what he does next, and it looks like he'll be busy for the next couple of years!

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