Woody Allen’s ‘Irrational Man’ opens strong

19 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. Last week, we had director James Ponsoldt — our first three-time guest! — for a talk after a screening of “The End of the Tour.” (There will be more coverage of that film in the weeks ahead.) This week, we’ll show Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected,” about a high school teacher facing an unplanned pregnancy, followed by a Q&A with actors Cobie Smulders, Anders Holm and Gail Bean. At the New York premiere of his new film, Irrational Man, on Wednesday, July 15, Allen took some time to speak highly of the cast, and his leading lady in particular. 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.

The week after that, we’ll have “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” with writer-director Marielle Heller and actors Alexander Skarsgard and Bel Powley. In the film, Stone plays a wide-eyed college student who crushes on, then gets in a secret relationship with her wise but tortured professor (Joaquin Phoenix). Happily their directors didn’t leave them on the page, so they’ve warped into something a little different: A mystery of memory and the aging mind in the case of Mr. 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. They first worked together on the 2014 movie Magic in the Moonlight. “Emma can do everything: She can act, sing, dance, astonish, and she’s beautiful and intelligent. The latter is territory Allen has traipsed through before, of course — most recently in Match Point, but also in earlier quasi-homages to the Master of Suspense.

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. If neurotics are Woody Allen’s area of expertise, then the visiting professor who arrives at a small New England college in Irrational Man is an ideal title character. 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.

The movie also lets on that Allen may be aware of what some people think of him after all, as there is a reading of the film in which he is responding to those who think they know something about him. I was writing this script and I was worried about who could possibly pull off this part, and of course Emma could,” the five-time Oscar winner told Us Weekly. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, Abe is depressed, alcoholic, sexually dysfunctional, aimless, bored — a sad-sack intellectual stuck in a well-worn rut — and consequently in a Woody Allen film, absolute catnip for a hot-to-trot academic colleague played by Parker Posey.

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. Joaquin Phoenix plays a college philosophy professor struggling to escape his own mordant self-pity even as he becomes an object of affection for both a young student (Emma Stone) and another teacher (Parker Posey).

He also explained that many share his sentiment. “Nobody ever has anything bad to say about Emma Stone,” he said. “Whenever I’ve mentioned I’m working with her on a movie, people brighten up, “Oh I love her!” I know why they do. He’s no sooner set foot on campus than she’s making a play for him, accosting him at faculty parties, bringing him scotch on a rainy evening, and begging him not to send her home to her hubby without sleeping with her first.

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. As I wrote: “The new movie remains tonally elusive, changing at times scene by scene or even moment by moment between playful comedy and something more downcast and ruminative. Allen admitted in Cannes earlier this year that he hadn’t been familiar with Stone’s work until seeing her in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love while on his treadmill.

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. Allen’s new ‘Man’ isn’t so much irrational as stubbornly, willfully weird.” I interviewed Allen in person twice in the long run of his 2013 film “Blue Jasmine,” once in New York ahead of the film’s summer release and then again in Los Angeles a few months later. With a seemingly endless cycle of “Batman,” “Superman” and “Spider-Man” movies in one stage of development or another, it can be easy for filmgoers to think all comic-book superhero movies are basically alike.

Last summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” put a playful spin on the concept, and now along comes “Ant-Man” starring the ever-affable Paul Rudd. After praising the actor’s acting ability, Allen went on to describe him as “charmfully erratic.” But Parker Posey, who steals scenes as a female professor that Phoenix’s character also becomes involved with, seems to have charmed the director and will be collaborating with Allen again on his next project, which starts filming in August with Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, and Bruce Willis. 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. It’s got a vintage science-fiction feel and a climactic scene in which Thomas the Tank Engine rather than a crowd of interstellar invaders plays a major part. 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.

Business as usual this is not.” Josh Rottenberg spoke to Reed about the film and its production backstory. “I like the idea that he’s one of the lesser-known characters out in the world,” Reed said. “I find something sort of liberating about that. Action that reinvigorates him (and has the pleasant side-effect of turning him into a caveman in the bedroom), but that would likely distress his “Ethical Strategies” students.

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. People don’t really know what to make of him: ‘He shrinks and he controls ants — how is that cool?’ We’re going to show you absolutely how that’s cool.” I interviewed Reed a few years ago when he directed Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston in the prickly rom-com “The Break-Up,” a film I have real affection for and which has been recently popping up on cable. 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.

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.

The disc also features a surprisingly candid half-hour making-of documentary, which really captures the mix of chaos, planning and hard work that goes into making a film. Now in his 90s, living in a country house with beehives, a housekeeper (Laura Linney), and her precocious son Roger (Milo Parker), Sherlock is both proud of, and struggling to remember, his glory days. 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. Another recent late-night fave has been “Inherent Vice.” Though not included on the official home-video release, a fantastic behind-the-scenes film recently popped up online titled “Chryskylodon Blues.”

Watson, he tells Roger, who admires him to the point of hero-worship, nearly always exaggerated and simplified when he wrote the stories that made them both famous. 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. His powers of deduction are fading as quickly as his memory, leaving him haunted by the feeling that he got something wrong that still needs to be put right. 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. Director Bill Condon won an Oscar when last he worked with McKellen on Gods And Monsters — also the tale of an elderly celeb and a young protégé . 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 does his star, who looks unnervingly enfeebled in the film’s present, but vigorous in flashbacks to postwar London and a blackened, blistered Hiroshima. 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. Co-screenwriter Mitch Cullin had a hand in adapting his own novel — A Slight Trick of the Mind — and found a new, much sunnier way for Holmes to learn the limits of logic, and the value of fiction.

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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