Review: Irrational Man

Image: Sony Pictures Classics


“Life is ironic” mumbles malt tickling, paunchy philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix). In Irrational Man, the latest instalment in the Woody Allen archive, life is not so much ironic as autobiographical.

It seems obvious that all directors draw influence from their own lives and throw their personal experiences onto the magnifying glass of the big screen. How else would Christopher Nolan make Batman, James Cameron create Avatar or George Lucas pull off Star Wars? Unlike Donald Trump, they are incapable of turning real life into a reality TV show, so they concoct a complex blur of reality and fiction under the vocation: ‘director’.

There is nothing irrational about the Dark Knight, blue people or a death star. They are all evidence of a director’s everyday interactions inspiring their métier. Who hasn’t been served by Bane down the bakery, taken a two week trip to Pandora or seen a Bounty Hunter at the tobacconist’s? Events take a darker turn when we look into Woody Allen’s influences.

In 2014 allegations again arose over the sexual abuse of his adopted daughter with Mia Farrow, Dylan. Allen is said to have molested the then eight-year-old Dylan in the attic of their home. Though the story disappeared from headlines for over two decades, Allen’s past two films seem an onscreen attempt to heal the wounds. A didactic canvass upon which to dissect the difficulties in the dynamics of complex relationships.

Irrational Man shares features with its predecessor, Magic in the Moonlight. Both chronicle an older man finding zeal in the admiration of a younger woman. The films share a plot, with Joaquin Phoenix here playing the Colin Firth role from the latter film, as an older, unwitting and latterly self-indulgent love interest. Meanwhile, Emma Stone hardly breaks from her preppy comfort zone as a younger object of infatuation; a muse to rekindle their burnt-out engines for life. Stone has come a long way from an early credit in teen sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. It seems a waste of an actress who flared with potential in Oscar winner, Birdman.

Oscars are a long way from the mind of Woody Allen’s self-reverie. It is hard not to twist a tale of an older man suffering with writer’s block (especially bad in the bedroom), turning Irrational Man into a hunt for sexual lust through an existential deed and the eroticism of a younger lady. Significantly, the intergenerational lovers are equals. Abe Lucas is no predator; Stone’s Jill does all the hard yards, almost forcing the reluctant Lucas (Phoenix) into a classically corny student/professor college affair. The so-called ‘psychological’ sketches of the couple as the voiceovers announce their innermost wants and desires adds a faintly comedic note but not in the way intended. They are pointless conceits.

This leads to a somewhat bizarre imbalance in the film between the two overworked leads and the remainder of the cast who exist on their perimeter. The quality of Phoenix, on similarly downtrodden form to his recent Inherent Vice performance (without the comedy), allows the film to be adequate company for its ninety-six minutes, despite some very sketchy peripheral characters. The best example is Roy (Jamie Blackley). He plays Jill’s (Emma Stone) high school romance with all the aplomb of a sterile stereotype. His wetness seems to match Jill’s moist feelings towards our irresistibly Irrational Man, Abe Lucas. The highlight being the point at which he states his intention to study in Oxford next year and live in London. Oh, such suffering! For the audience, that is. Roy is a plastic pastiche.

‘Magic in the Moonlight’ and ‘Irrational Man’ are vague, off-beat sketches of unlikely worlds that lack the characteristic quality of a craftsman’s hand

The aesthetics of the film please the eye. Cinematographer Darius Khondji, who has worked on much of Allen’s later material – including box office success Midnight in Paris – distills an ethereal air to the alternating shots of bright glare and fading sets of sun. Highlights include a cameraman’s nightmare in the hall of mirrors – a scene rendered with successful sparkle – and a glorious last glimpse of sun over a lake as Phoenix’s Lucas seems to disintegrate into a mirage of atoms under its majestic afterglow. The eponymous backdrop in Magic in the Moonlight is swapped for the low light of dusky twilights and spontaneous sunny splendour. It is a radiant presentation in which a single scene steals the show.

We sit beside Phoenix and Stone (Abe Lucas and Jill) in a roadside diner as a conversation in the booth behind slowly filters further and further into their collective consciousness. The way in which the dialogue is audible to the audience as the characters’ focus switches is perfectly realised. The speech transforms from previously unintelligible background murmur to dominate the protagonists as they become the background. The camerawork follows the sound. Though a seemingly minor detail, the scene becomes the critical arc of the plot. Its cinematic quality is a little delight within a film otherwise lacking such treats.

It is only two years since Cate Blanchett proved a runaway success in 2013’s Blue Jasmine, but Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man are vague, off-beat sketches of unlikely worlds that lack the characteristic quality of a craftsman’s hand. They are forgivably forgettable last sparks from a dying flame. At eighty years of age, that is rational, man.

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