You’ve Been Schooled
By Michael Koresky

Irrational Man
Dir. Woody Allen, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics

Perhaps because there continue to be so many of them, and they come at such a steady clip, Woody Allen’s movies aren’t generally given much aesthetic consideration. And if one does talk about them as cinema, it’s usually in terms of individual properties, with each film broken down into its constituent parts. There’s the dialogue of course, and then there’s performance, which is usually only really examined if there is a bravura, showy turn, like Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine or Penelope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona. Less discussed is his films’ cinematography, and if it is acknowledged at all it’s merely in terms of identifying the latest renowned DP brought onboard and casually mentioning what he brings to the work of Woody Allen, never vice versa. Music is occasionally cited, normally in a passing or derisive way, since how many times must we be subjected to “Stardust” or “Sing, Sing, Sing!” or Mahler’s Fourth? Set and costume design are never brought into it, unless it’s a period piece, à la Bullets Over Broadway, and even then they seem to be treated as discrete technical elements that function independently of the films. And of course none of these aspects are in any way connected to direction, which, as so many now think, must be some sort of an afterthought because Woody Allen just turns on the camera and lets it run while his actors indulge in their own behavioral tics while he falls asleep in the folding chair. Right?

The way people regard Woody Allen movies these days is fairly ironic—his films are clearly detailed, thought-out auteurist works, with commonalities between them identified as swiftly as noting state license plates on the highway; at the same time they’re considered autopilot works, which unthinkingly emerge from one man’s consciousness fully formed. We should remember that maintaining such consistency of vision over the course of many decades with a host of different technicians and artists at his disposal is nothing to be sniffed at. The sheer amount of Woody Allen films means that each one—especially the less sensational among them—seems to lose its identity. Yet each should be admired or at least seriously regarded for whatever singular expression it contains, for the ways in which all these elements work together to fuel an engine for each title’s philosophical and aesthetic aims.

We tend to get tired of the artists and personalities constantly around us, only appreciating them once they are gone (Robin Williams seems to be just such a case for myself and for many I know). Being annoyed at Woody Allen for telling a story every twelve months or so has always struck me as looking a gift horse in the mouth. As an unspoken rule, we want our auteurs to be Tarkovskys, Kubricks, or like the Terrence Malick that existed between 1978 and 1998, sitting and stewing and planning endlessly while tinkering away in preproduction. This assumes that when we finally see the finished product, everything is just right—that, say, Full Metal Jacket must intrinsically be a more profoundly thought-out, better constructed film than Hannah and Her Sisters. These are clearly fallacies. Woody Allen drops a new movie a year, some land with a thud, others float like gossamer into our consciousness, but all are at least worthy of our consideration. His latest, Irrational Man, is, whether one accepts or rejects its brutal fatalism, a totalizing aesthetic experience that provides evidence that this seventy-nine-year-old is a craftsman we should still be paying attention to.

One cannot separate aesthetics from plot or narrative in Irrational Man, which works as well as it does because of the brilliantly tricky juxtapositions set up by Allen and his director of photography Darius Khondji. The Tehran-born cinematographer has proven to be a crucial collaborator with Woody Allen, creating the lush visual palettes for such recent films as Midnight in Paris and Magic in the Moonlight, comic confections that shimmered onscreen right along with the fanciful events and character arcs Allen devised for them; working with production designer Anne Seibel, Khondji helped conjure exquisite early twentieth-century detail that more bombastic period filmmakers like Baz Luhrmann could only dream of. What Khondji and Allen create together in the contemporary-set Irrational Man is subtler, more intuitive, but no less impressive: a deceptively cheery, sun-dappled exterior for a comedy that turns out to be anything but a comedy. The dance between the camera and the film’s three principal actors, Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey, is something to behold, a lovely and terrifying give and take that warms and humanizes what on paper might have looked like a cold exercise about the banality of evil.

Even from the opening credits, we may notice crucial differences from and similarities to his other films: the usual white-on-black Windsor font for the complete list, but this time there’s no music, just ambient sounds of a car in motion. By the time the movie starts, however, we hear the first of the film’s jaunty Ramsey Lewis Trio jazz soundtrack selections over the image of our antihero Professor Abe Lucas (Phoenix), as he motors toward a college campus in Rhode Island, where he is about to begin a new teaching job. The upbeat tempo of the song, “The ‘In’ Crowd,” promises flavorsome antics, but Abe’s voiceover soon tells us that he has hit rock bottom, or as he amusingly calls it, “Zabriskie Point.” By placing the music over the incongruous image rather than the opening credits, the film seems to be showing a distinction between the experience of the film (woozy, disorienting) and the outlook of the film (hollow, inquisitive). Irrational Man isn’t above underlining its talking points from early on—like Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bullets Over Broadway, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream, the film is preoccupied with questions of choice and morality, randomness and being—but this doesn’t dilute the film’s odd form of catharsis. Once again taking notes from Dostoevsky, Allen is here musing about the cosmic order of a universe he sees as inherently godless, in which murder might be as minor an act as stealing a toothbrush.

In a crucial change from those earlier films, Irrational Man is not simply wedded to the point of view of the character who will eventually prove to be a killer. Abe’s is one of two dueling voiceovers, the other belonging to Stone’s Jill, a student instantly enamored of Professor Abe after her first day in his Ethical Strategies class. Rumors of a sad, even scandalous life swirl around Abe upon his campus arrival, which only further entice the young Jill, despite the fact that when we first meet him, Abe is a sweaty, flask-swilling lump with an enormous gut who can barely grunt out a word to the faculty head greeting him with a smile. Initially she is all a-twitter over her teacher, but like another student with a crush in a Woody Allen film, Juliette Lewis’s Rain in Husbands and Wives, she soon will be taking it upon herself to question the teacher’s writing and philosophy—not to mention his moral outlook, and implicitly by extension the idea of higher learning itself. Another woman in this university microcosm is summarily intrigued by Abe, a more age-appropriate chemistry teacher named Rita (Posey), who early on invites him back to her house for a drink. At first the initially impotent Abe (a self-professed “passive intellectual who can’t fuck”) tries to resist both women, though he eventually succumbs to both the flinty Posey and the soft Stone, the women making a marvelous study in contrasts, each character invested with her performer’s trademark charm. Posey now has this incredible seen-it-all way of carrying herself, each flicker of the eyelid and grimace speaking to some vast, complex interior life; Stone, on the other hand, is wise but so wide-eyed and fresh-faced that she’s still clearly trying to absorb and make sense of a world that has yet to reveal itself as corrupt.

Phoenix’s sleepy-eyed, rhythmically odd performance in the film’s first half—like Abe, he seems to be going through the motions of playing professor, lecturing on Kant, lies, and ethics; rolling his eyes at his own work on Heidegger and fascism—gives way to something eerily composed and complicated in the second half. The reason for this change is the film’s great central twist, and what pushes it into a realm that some will find exhilarating, others pointlessly dark. Woody Allenisms abound, of course—“Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation,” says Abe—but they’re not here to be one-liners so much as reflections of the film’s central inquiries. Irrational Man, the only Allen film to take place entirely on a college campus, displays Allen’s usual mild contempt for academia, but it never verges into outright satire. It’s also his first purely philosophical murder film, one in which the act has nothing to do with revenge or opportunity but is rather just giving a middle finger to the universe. This is, finally, the feature-length expression of a filmmaker who, in Annie Hall, referred to the heinous crime of two men who killed only for reasons of intellectual superiority in a punchline: “I think there’s too much burden placed on the orgasm to make up for empty areas in life.” “Who said that?” “It may have been Leopold and Loeb.”

There’s no doubt that there are the usual clunky touches here, providing ammo for the detractors who wish Woody would “get out more.” When Abe researches cyanide poisoning, he does it in the school library; and there’s a haplessly literal reveal near the end concerning the discovery of some evidence that could give Stanley Tucci’s unearthed “murder book” in The Lovely Bones (among the stupidest scenes in all American film) a run for its money. But these are ultimately unimportant instances of expedience in a film that is always in tune to the moment as it unfurls onscreen, and to the behavioral quirks and emotional transparencies of its actors and characters. There’s a beautifully acted dinner scene, between Abe, Jill, and Jill’s parents, that is a master class for Phoenix in evasion and self-satisfied lying and for Stone in earnestness: confronted with the facts of an ever-more sensational murder, both characters are problem-solving, yet working at opposite ends, and both actors are marvelously present. In fact, rarely has Phoenix been less mannered and internalized that he is here. The way these actors try to work their way through the expanding intricacies of the plot, and the way Khondji and Allen capture them doing it is more than just skilled, it’s the essence of narrative filmmaking.

As in Crimes and Match Point, Allen is doing Dostoevsky, although it’s more meaningfully breezy here than ever before, coasting on the waves of its disconcertingly amused protagonist’s psyche. Many will despise the film even for such a concept, and furthermore for Allen again plumbing the Literature section and bringing a classic work to a mainstream American vernacular, kind of like what Disney and Leopold Stokowski did with Stravinsky in Fantasia. Allen has routinely been chided for this, whether it’s being too Bergman-like (Interiors, Another Woman), Felliniesque (Stardust Memories, Celebrity), Chekhovian (September), etc.—as though the essential humanity in these artists’ works is untranslatable. (That the same critics who hate him for such adaptation may adore a filmmaker like Tarantino for his constant reappropriation of earlier pop material says a lot about how we draw distinct boundaries between what we perceive as high and low.) Rather than merely repetitive or even miserable, there’s something romantic about Allen going back to that same well, and it underlines what makes him a crucial artist for today. Rather than stuck in a rut, I see him as a teacher returning to the same handful of classes every year, whose syllabi infrequently change but which can continue to illuminate core concepts and values and aesthetic ideas. That he can still instruct with such wit and coherence, and that he has such great guest speakers to help illustrate the course work, is reason to keep signing up.