There’s a scene in the PBS American Masters documentary about Woody Allen in which he shares his creative process. Whenever he gets an idea he jots it down on whatever is handy. A sheet of notebook paper. Hotel stationery. A cocktail napkin. And then, whenever he’s done with a movie he dumps that pile of ideas on the bed and begins sorting through them until he finds one that sticks.
That becomes the seed for the next movie. I love wondering at the cocktail-napkin idea when I see his movies, especially ones like Irrational Man. The movie is about a tortured philosophy Professor named Abe played by Joaquin Phoenix who gets a job at a rich Connecticut university for the summer. As with at least one character in many Woody Allen movies, Abe is overcome with existential grief. The meaningless of life has become almost too much for him to bear, rendering him impotent and uncaring about his own mortality.
He strikes up a relationship with Jill played by Emma Stone, as well as Rita played by Parker Posey, both wonderful performances. Both are infatuated with Abe’s intellect and supposed genius. Abe finds a bottom of sorts and then…what he believes to be a meaningful act that restores his will to live. Why is it the first movie to contain moments of a surprise this summer – surprises that weren’t given away in the trailers…is a Woody Allen movie.
I went into Irrational Man having seen one trailer and expecting something along the lines of Whatever Works…and was genuinely surprised. I don’t have the education or the intellect necessary to always grasp the greater thematic aspirations in Woody’s films so much of my like or dislike for the movie comes down to is there is a character in the movie that I can relate to? While Midnight in Paris was charming, I found the endless historical references (of which I think I got around 50 percent) fatiguing.
Owen Wilson isn’t the most relatable actor to me. And oftentimes (though not always) Woody’s writing strikes me as more concerned with the cocktail napkin magic trick he’s pulling off rather than developing interesting characters – but he gets some of the greatest actors in the world to be in each of his movies, who conjure up performances that bring these characters to life. Here, Abe could have easily been a tedious intellectual navel gazer. But Joaquin Phoenix grounds him in this slobbish emotionally distant and believable performance. The way in which Abe finds his meaning again might not have worked if not for Phoenix’s performance. As the student infatuated with Abe Emma Stone provides the perfect counterbalance.
Soulful and passionate when Abe is distant and morose and well….something else later on. Irrational Man is dry at times, especially when compared to Match Point and Vicki Christina Barcelona. But we’re carried through those moments well enough by the chemistry between these two great actors. And then comes the turn. I don’t pretend to be Woody Allen expert. I think I’ve only seen maybe 60 to 70 percent of his movies. But one of the things I enjoy is he’s so prolific that his movies seem to group together into specific periods in which he’s asking related questions.
Questions about God. Questions about fidelity. In his last decade, he seems to me to be asking what makes a meaningful life. What is the difference between the fulfilled and the miserable? After decades of soul searching and intellectualizing about the nature of man and the universe, based on the evidence of his films it seems to me he’s come down to 2 answers, both of which are reflected in Irrational Man. Love. And Luck. If you’ve never seen a Woody Allen film than Irrational Man is not a good starting point. Go watch Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Match Point or Vicki Christina Barcelona if you’re looking for something from the last 10 years. If you have seen a few and found them tedious this one isn’t going to win you over. But I am a fan. His movies have a simple urgency to them and after a summer of the gray matter fast food I came out of Irrational Man feeling like I’d just eaten a thoughtful meal. I IMMEDIATELY wanted to discuss it with someone. This is hardly one of his best, even in the last ten years. It isn’t particularly well-directed or well written. But man…I love what he wrote on that cocktail napkin. And for me, that was enough. Not his greatest but still satisfying. Irrational Man gets a 3 out of 5.