Here’s Why Emma Stone’s Artistic Alliance With Woody Allen Is So Complicated

17 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Irrational Man': The film would be a real slog without Emma Stone.

Woody Allen’s 45th movie, “Irrational Man,” draws on life-and-death themes he’s already more roundedly dabbled with in such films as “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point.” This is Allen in his serious – or semiserious – mode, where names like Heidegger and Sartre are dropped not comedically but weightily. At 26, Emma Stone has already been a leading lady onscreen for some five years, since her 2010 breakthrough in Easy A; she recently made a well-received Broadway debut, in Cabaret, and received an Oscar nomination, for her role in Birdman.Depending on your tolerance for the existential anguish that defines so many of Woody Allen’s characters, a philosophy professor is either the perfect protagonist for one of his movies, or the worst. Because he works so much – essentially a movie a year since 1969’s “Take the Money and Run” – it’s understandable that Allen would revisit earlier material.

In the director’s new film Irrational Man (out July 17), Joaquin Phoenix is the latest actor to take the lead, with Allen now outsourcing roles he once played himself to younger actors carrying out onscreen affairs with actresses even younger still (in this case, it’s Emma Stone). It’s a complicated proposition for a star who’s been on the rise for as long as she’s been working, problematic in part for how intuitive it seems. Phoenix’s Abe Lucas is a reputed but heavy-drinking philosophy professor whose morose detachment elicits lust—both intellectual and sexual—from faculty and students alike.

After a series of personal misfortunes and a few too many nights wrestling with long-dead existentialists, he has come to possess what his student Jill (Stone) describes as a “bleak view of existence.” He’s also come to seriously question whether his chosen discipline isn’t merely “verbal masturbation,” a “theoretical world of bulls–t” that’s no match for the trials of real life. With this week’s release of Irrational Man, in which Stone plays opposite Joaquin Phoenix, the actress follows in a long line of actresses who’ve worked with the director multiple times, including Scarlett Johansson, Dianne Wiest, Diane Keaton, and Allen’s former romantic partner Mia Farrow. (Stone had previously starred in 2014’s Magic in the Moonlight.) It’s a path that has long led to great things, professionally: Wiest and Keaton are among a long list of actresses (including, most recently, Blue Jasmine star Cate Blanchett) who’ve won Academy Awards for their roles in Allen films, while Johansson, now a critical darling, broke free from derision with strong performances in Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. As Abe navigates his feelings for Jill, the advances of his colleague Rita Richards (Parker Posey) and a disturbing plan to inject purpose into his meaningless existence—by murdering a perfect stranger to improve the life of another stranger—hardly ten minutes pass without hearing him name-drop a philosopher. Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is newly arrived at a prestigious Rhode Island college to teach a summer course in “ethical strategies.” His reputation as a womanizing lush precedes him, but, upon arrival, only the lush part seems accurate.

Though Philosophy 101 isn’t a prerequisite for the film, a refresher on the thinkers whose theories connect the plot’s dots will keep audiences in step with Abe’s evolving existential circumstances. Sodden, cynical, sometimes surly, he mumbles his way through class and backs away from the overt advances of Rita (Parker Posey), an unhappily married chemistry professor with whom he can’t do much more than apologize for his lack of carnal enthusiasm.

Immanuel Kant: None of these philosophers can be summarized in a tidy paragraph—least of all Kant—but of all the 18th century philosopher’s work on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics, his notion of a categorical imperative is the one referenced most frequently in Irrational Man. Friendless but needing an occasional outlet for his woes, he begins spending platonic time with Jill (Emma Stone), a sharp-eyed student who is smitten by his unreachableness. “He’s a real sufferer,” she proudly tells her exasperated boyfriend (Jamie Blackley). The concept on morality and reason, introduced in 1785, states that one must “Act only according to that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Practically speaking, the moral thing to do in a situation is the action that would be universally moral no matter the circumstances. Even when Abe attends a college party and, to everyone’s horror, pulls the trigger in a self-improvised game of Russian roulette, Jill continues to be drawn to him. The categorical imperative also suggests that one can never lie to another person, for any reason, even if the asker is a murderer seeking information to help carry out a killing.

Although we are told that Abe was once a fiery social activist who volunteered in Darfur and post-Katrina New Orleans, it’s difficult to see any vestige of that man in the soggy mess he has become. The first, and lesser, is technical: Allen is famously unwilling to provide direction to his actors, allowing them to feel through their roles for themselves. Phoenix’s performance carries its depresso force field, but it’s a fuzzy, amorphous piece of work, similar in its more blotto moments to his stoner in “Inherent Vice.” In order for us to really feel for this guy, we need a clearer sense, even for a few brief moments, of how far he has fallen. In facing this “dizziness of freedom,” he believed, humans are overwhelmed by possibilities—to jump or not to jump, for instance—but we also reach a deeper self-awareness.

She makes more magic with Phoenix in her new film, but the twists of the plot—Stone is in love with Phoenix’s philosophy professor, who comes to be disgusted by Phoenix’s absolutism in defense of his beliefs—appear, frankly, difficult to navigate in the absence of direction. Things perk up a bit, both with the movie and with Phoenix, when Abe and Jill accidentally overhear a woman in a diner bemoaning her fate in an upcoming custody hearing involving a corrupt judge.

Neither a put-together Stone’s defense of a disheveled Phoenix’s “burnout look” as sexy nor her self-denying remark at a restaurant—”I love that you order for me!”—square with any aspect of Stone’s well-defined personality, and she doesn’t give us anything new. For the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard, this sickness was, in a word, despair, which he believed resulted from failing to align with God’s plan for oneself.

In that absence of enough direction to make any role intriguing, there are two sorts of women in Allen films—the type who win acting awards as a result of how much they’re given to do, and the ones who exist as young and appealing fixtures in the lives of male leads. Martin Heidegger: That Abe references Heidegger with derision, in the same breath as “fascism,” isn’t surprising given the German philosopher’s affiliation with the Nazi Party.

Though he made significant contributions in the realms of existentialism, political theory, hermeneutics and other fields, his anti-Semitic writings have come to contaminate his reputation. But that’s a useless thought experiment: What other prominent director, twice granted access to one of the most widely-admired young actresses working, would twice give her roles whose entire purpose is bland repartee with father figures? This gives rise to the greater problem with Stone’s work for Allen: That it represents a whole new generation giving the thumbs-up to a figure whom it’s morally complex (at best) to support.

While fascism presupposes a dictator ruling over a faceless crowd, Heidegger’s thoughts on being encourage accepting the inevitability of death as motivation to live for oneself, and acknowledging other people as ends rather than means. Whether or not something from life is playing itself out in Allen’s twice placing Stone into pairings with significantly older romantic partners, it calls to mind darker, more uncomfortable aspects for any audience member. Jean-Paul Sartre: A key 20th century figure in existentialism, phenomenology and Marxism, Sartre wrote that we are “condemned to be free.” Free will exists, he believed, and humans must acknowledge that freedom and make meaning of our existence as we go along, for meaning does not exist just because we exist. She asked Stone, Blanchett, Johansson, and others how they could work with Allen, and it’s a legitimate question: Though Allen has not been charged with a crime, the degree to which scandal has followed him for decades makes working with him, particularly for a female star, a decision that requires willful blindness to a lot that’s troubling. We must not live in accordance with a set of preordained meanings (capitalism, for example), for to do so falsely removes the burden of our own freedom.

She’s not doing her best work in Irrational Man—while the role gives her just enough to play and she does a decent job, she seems off-balance throughout. It comes from a 1944 play by Sartre, “No Exit” (Sartre, therefore, penned but did not himself utter the words), and is often misinterpreted to mean exactly what it implies. And in spite of her attempts to make Allen seem cute for a new generation, as with a much-circulated anecdote about how she taught him about Twitter, just like she did her onscreen dad in Birdman, there’s still a penumbra of weirdness surrounding an actress willing to put herself forward as Allen’s designated star at this particular moment in time. Hannah Arendt: It bears mentioning that Arendt, though often labeled a philosopher, described herself as a political theorist, as she dealt with men (and women) in the plural, as opposed to “man,” singular. The phrase describes a phenomenon Arendt observed in Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis who claimed that in carrying out the Holocaust, they were simply following orders and doing their jobs, which in their views abdicated them of responsibility.

That the new thing Allen has twice had Stone try is “What if you were dumber than you are, and into an older man?,” and that there are so few other onscreen opportunities for an actress to do meaningful work, isn’t Stone’s fault—but it’s become her problem. Eichmann, rather than acting on evil impulses, acted in an unthinking manner: a bureaucrat incapable of comprehending the consequences of his actions on his victims. As far as the banality of evil plays out in Abe’s world, his decision to do evil does not originate from outside of himself, nor is he a cog in the regime—he just chooses to create his own framework of morality and evil. Simone de Beauvoir: Though she produced work on a wide array of subjects, de Beauvoir’s most influential writing is The Second Sex, a 1949 treatise on the oppression of women, which is often credited with inspiring second-wave feminism.

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