The opening is familiar. White letters on a black screen. It’s the way director Woody Allen does it. Same with the music. Allen rarely has an original score. Usually it’s something in the vein of an early Benny Goodman or a nostalgic though jaunty jazz number, complete with the underlining worn noise of crackling bacon from an old 78 rpm. But here there’s something different with the beginning of Allen’s new film, Irrational Man. Nothing revolutionary, but being Woody Allen, it’s noticeable.
First, there’s no opening music. Here the white letters on a black screen are initially silent until a little background noise starts to filter in. Next, the film is shot widescreen. Usually an Allen film has a standard sized screen ratio, but here it’s wide. He shot Manhattan in ’79 the same way, plus there was the almost forgotten comedy of 2003, Anything Else and his recent Blue Jasmine and Magic in the Moonlight; all letterbox. But after almost fifty films as writer/director – not sure of the full amount, but that’s close – when only five are intentionally wide, you notice it, and you wonder why.
Now, you might be lulled into thinking that maybe there’s going to be a change of overall style. After all, whether you’re a fan or not, Allen is a great maker of films, even if there’s a tendency to forget several once the release is over. Annie Hall, Manhattan, Mighty Aphrodite; you’ll know them forever, and you should. Hannah and Her Sisters? Outstanding. But, devoted fans aside, remember Small Time Crooks or perhaps Celebrity? Chances are, you won’t. As for Irrational Man, a movie buff may want a copy for the collection, but it’ll remain on the shelf, right next to Don’t Drink The Water, and there it’ll most likely remain, perhaps unopened.
“I think Abe was crazy from the beginning,” states the voice of college student, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), one of two voice-over narrators. “He was so dammed interesting.” The Abe she’s referring to is Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), the newly arrived college professor at Rhode Island’s Braylin College. Abe is the other narrator.
Abe has an individual style when teaching the subject of philosophy. He also has issues. “There’s a difference between philosophical bullshit and real life,” he casually instructs his students, adding, “Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation.” He creates campus news, that’s for sure. When he talks there’s a lazy drawl to his pronunciation; it’s the same way someone speaks when they’ve woken up and it’s about three in the morning. And there’s a downbeat, could-not-care-less approach to illustrating what he means when he tells guests at a social event that life gives a fifty-fifty chance of survival. He does this by popping a bullet in a gun and playing Russian Roulette. The guests are horrified. He doesn’t care.
Abe is impotent and has been for the best part of a year. After a strong come-on from married professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), they go to bed, but it doesn’t work. Abe, pot-bellied and continually swigging a little alcohol from a flask, no longer has what it takes. He’s lost his spark of life.
Then something odd occurs. It’s odd to the point where the film actually changes direction. While at a diner with student Jill, Abe overhears a conversation in the next booth. A distraught mother is at the end of her wits because of a nightmare custody battle between her and her husband and because of the judge who appears to favor the husband. She tearfully tells the story to her three friends. She’s going to lose her children. Abe and Jill silently listen, fascinated.
For Abe, hearing the story suddenly injects fresh vigor into his being. He’s suddenly inspired. What if he planned and committed the perfect murder? What if he killed the judge in a way that no one would ever suspect that it was him, thereby helping the woman in the next booth secure custody of her children? “The high risks made me feel alive,” Abe narrates. And that’s what he does. By stalking the judge and getting to know his habits, where he jogs, where he buys his daily juice, where he reads his newspaper, Abe tracks the man’s routine. With a little cyanide sneaked out of the chemistry lab, Abe does what he plans; he murders the presumed prejudiced judge, and no one knows who did it. “A great feeling of accomplishment came over me,” Abe tells us. It also does wonders for his new found sex life.
Plotting the perfect murder is nothing new to a Woody Allen film. He did it with Cassandra’s Dream, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and most memorably with Match Point. In Irrational Man, the act is something of an exorcism. It releases the stupor Abe was in and replaces it with a new release on life. You could call Irrational Man a murder mystery, though the mystery is not so much a whodunit – we know whodunit, we’re with him every step of the way – but more of a how-will-they-catch-him, if they catch him at all.
Orson Welles once said that black and white is an actor’s friend; no one gives a bad performance in black and white. The same can be said for a Woody Allen film; no one, even the most mediocre of performers, delivers a bad performance in a Woody Allen helmer, and Irrational Man is certainly no exception. From lead characters Parker Posey and Emma Stone down to solid supports from Betsy Aidem and Ethan Phillips; they all deliver that natural quality whenever they’re on, a practical hallmark of an Allen production. Plus, Joaquin Phoenix continues to erode the memory of that seriously miscalculated and painful attempt at faux documentaries, I’m Still Here. But Irrational Man engages only to a point.
Scenes follow each other at an even pace, continuously punctuated by variously paced versions of the same musical theme, Ramsey Lewis’ The In Crowd. In the same way Jill describes the professor, the film is at first so dammed interesting; not particularly funny, but interesting. But as it moves forward without highs or lows – it all runs on an even keel as if actual tension or any real sense of drama with potential danger eludes director Allen’s style – the film ultimately fails to emotionally engage. Events merely unfold, we witness them, then it’s over.
It’s not that we should completely dismiss Irrational Man as simply another Woody Allen movie to put on the shelf along with the fifty or so others, it’s just that when there’s something about that beginning that suggests a change in cinematic directorial style, you hope to be surprised. But it doesn’t come.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 97 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)