Woody Allen makes three kinds of movies.
He creates special films we can’t wait to see again, like Annie Hall and Bullets Over Broadway. He delivers movies we enjoy at the time, such as Midnight in Paris and Everyone Says I Love You. And, unfortunately, he turns out flicks we wish we had skipped. Including this one.
There’s no reason to sit through the long 90 minutes of Irrational Man unless you like movie popcorn, enjoy a theater’s air conditioning or try to see every Joaquin Phoenix movie. Woody Allen’s latest entry is pointless, sour and uninspired. No one seems committed to the work; the actors rush through their scenes as if they know the film isn’t working and Allen, off camera this time, sends signals he’s less interested, too. His punch lines are less observant, the characters less developed and the production values rather skimpy. Irrational Man seems less a movie than an afterthought.
That’s okay. Any director who has made more than 50 movies in almost 50 years can’t make a masterpiece every time. But it’s difficult to believe this film comes from the same mind that gives us so many movies we savor. What’s concerning is not what happens on the screen; we have seen Woody Allen duds before. It’s that the film suggests Allen didn’t have much fun making it. And when he doesn’t enjoy what’s happening behind the camera, chances are we won’t like what we see.
Allen doesn’t seem to know what the movie is about. After a rambling opening — where we meet a hard-drinking philosophy professor with a scandalous reputation — the writer Allen seems uncertain where to take the plot. Should he make the movie about an older man’s attraction to a younger woman? As in Manhattan? Or should he explore a man’s journey to self-awareness as in Midnight in Paris? Instead, Allen decides to re-use a plot from Crimes and Misdemeanors to embrace the possibility of a rational person committing a serious crime. But the director Allen only suggests what may be lurking beneath the surface of this brooding man. Instead of giving us a thoughtful look inside a troubled soul, he chooses to water down the story with predictable situations. Instead of investing his characters, he tries to get by with stale one-liners and obvious plot turns.
The actors are lost. Phoenix — who can look disconnected even when he is connected — is so detached from the material that he could be reading cue cards. Emma Stone relies on her appealing personality to shape her portrayal of a college student, but there’s no character for her to play. And Parker Posey looks desperate to find the substance of a woman so hungry for excitement that she throws herself at every available man.
None of this would matter if Irrational Man made us laugh or think. Woody Allen knows how to that. But he may have needed more time working on the script before he set up the first shot. Irrational Man is a reel disappointment from a man who gives us a lot to savor at the movies.
Film Nutritional Value
* Content: Low. Woody Allen doesn’t seem to know what story he wants to tell in a film that feels overlong at 90 minutes.
* Entertainment: Low. Emma Stone’s engaging personality is about the only thing that helps pass the time in a film caught up in its confusion.
* Message: Medium. The dilemma of someone who is good — thinking of doing something bad — can be interesting to pursue. But not here.
* Relevance: Low. Sadly, there’s not enough content to discuss, not enough humor to remember.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: Low. You may find yourself talking about all the good movies that Woody Allen has made over the years.
(Irrational Man is rated R for “some language and sexual content.” The film runs 96 minutes.)
2 Popcorn Buckets
Woody’s Not the Only One:
With Irrational Man, Woody Allen reminds us that even a great moviemaker can make a disappointing film. He’s not alone. Many directors have turned out duds during careers filled with acclaim.
Let’s take a look.
This legendary director – and two-time Oscar winner – gives us many reasons to go to the movies. But not everything works on his big screen. Today it’s easy to forget the disappointment of Always, a romantic drama starring Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter. This remake of the classic A Guy Named Joe gets lost in its suds and is only notable for the final screen appearance of Audrey Hepburn in a cameo role. Spielberg also disappoints with The War of the Worlds – lacking any of the suspenseful drive that marks his best thrillers – and the disastrous Hook. This re-telling of the story of Peter Pan reminds us that even the best director can get trapped by a bad script.
The movies this director contributes – from Ordinary People to Quiz Show – make us want to see more. And his contribution to the role of independent film has changed the industry. But even this Oscar winner can make a dud. In 2007, the teaming of Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise in a political thriller must have looked like a sure thing. But Redford the director even has trouble getting an inspired performance from Redford the actor and, while Streep can play anything, she is challenged to bring authenticity to the words of writer Matthew Michael Carnahan. This feels more like a professor’s lecture than a movie on the screen. And Redford’s stodgy direction doesn’t help.
It’s hard to believe this two-time Oscar winner turns out so many turkeys. For every Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon he churns out a disappointment like The Doors or World Trade Center. Three of his duds stand out. Alexander destroys any movie memories of the grand costume epics of the 1960s with a story more outrageous than the worst of those overblown favorites. W manages to show disrespect for a man who – regardless of political views – deserves the benefit of the doubt for moments no one observed. And Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps undoes the memory of a near-classicwith a sequel that never should have been made.
This master moviemaker brings a fresh approach to every topic he explores. Who else could imagine Hugo in vivid 3-D? Or turn a pot boiler like The Departed into an Oscar winner? Or bring to life the stories of the underworld in Goodfellas and Casino? But Scorcese is far from invincible. While he made a credible musical early in his career – New York, New York – he is less successful when trying comedy (After Hours) or costume drama (Kundun). Never is he as lost as when he tries to bring credibility to the outrageous would-be thriller Shutter Island. This overdrawn story of a missing murderess stretches its credibility from the outset. And Leonardo DiCaprio – again the focus of Scorcese’s attention – looks lost in role he clearly doesn’t understand. In a movie we can’t understand.
Yes, he continues to amaze with the scope of his directorial talents. And, yes, this two-time Oscar winner deserves every bit of praise he receives, from last year’s American Sniper to his masterpiece Unforgiven. But he is out of place focusing on sordid lives in the humid South in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or celebrating the power of police in The Rookie. And Eastwood is never as out of his element as when trying to stage a musical. With Jersey Boys, based on the Broadway hit, Eastwood reminds us that any director can make wrong choices. In this case, perhaps he should have looked at his musical attempt as a performer (in the disastrous Paint Your Wagon from 1969) before agreeing to direct a song and dance film.
As Woody Allen moves on to his next movie, at least he can take solace that he’s not the only great director to strike the wrong chord.
See you at the movies.