It really is a shame that Emma Stone has been subjected to the last two Woody Allen movies. Stone has such a life to her — an unmatchable personality — that makes her a perfect addition to the other great Woody muses such as Dianne Wiest, Diane Keaton, or more recently Scarlett Johansson.
Instead, she is relegated to two films that seem to examine the mind of a man trying to break from uniformity by using her characters as a means of escape into a self-perpetuated reality.
In his latest, Irrational Man, Allen tells the story of Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), a philosophy professor who joins the staff of a small Rhode Island college for the summer after a string of poor decisions. Upon coming there, he strikes up a friendship with Jill (Stone), one of his brightest students and one that finds his insecurities (and mysterious past) fascinating.
If it weren’t so neurotic, Irrational Man would make for an excellent porn film.
Regardless, Abe is struggling with life block — rather than writer’s block — and he can’t find a purpose to do anything. This includes having an affair with one of the other teachers, Rita (Parker Posey), who is as interested in the mind of Abe as Jill is.
On chance, Abe and Jill come across a conversation had by a woman who is struggling through a custody battle that isn’t going the way she anticipated it to because of the unfair treatment by the judge, who she says is in cahoots with her husband. After hearing of this predicament, Abe finds it to be his duty to rid the world of this judge and help this stranger’s life.
Much like his last film, Magic in the Moonlight, Allen is exploring the mind of a man who has had success in the past but is feeling empty in his most recent endeavors. Like Colin Firth’s Stanley in that film, Phoenix’s Abe seems to be self-inflicting these problems upon himself. This isn’t a new theme in a Woody Allen movie, but with other entries doing it much better, it seems like Allen could be in a rut.
The story isn’t awful and it is clear Allen is trying to drive the humor with the absurdity of this college professor finding bliss in life by planning to fix this woman’s problem with the judge, but it all just seems so contrived and as if he is trying to explore something that isn’t there.
In both of this recent films, we are diving into these men’s minds and trying to understand what truly makes them happy and why they are in the struggle that they have put themselves in. Maybe it isn’t coincidence that Allen is trying to explore this with two films that have seemingly put him in a rut of his own.
After Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, we were finally seeing some re-invigorated Woody again but after two straight duds, maybe he — like Abe and Stanley — is looking for a new bliss or re-discovering what he thought he lost. Which is ever more frustrating when he has given us two Emma Stone characters that puts her immense talent on display.
Instead, we are given two characters alongside her that seem to marvel at the doings of the lead and never fully realize what they want outside of that relationship until the bitter end of the film. At that point. we have been drained of any care for the lead characters, or even Stone’s, which makes being happy for her bittersweet.
Irrational Man is an irrational plot riddled with male insecurities and an exploration of a mind that really isn’t worth exploring in the first place. Like Jill, we realize that the mind of Abe is just self-inflicted torture on top of doubt that was placed there in order to try to make something interesting out of nothing.
It isn’t Woody at his best, and let’s hope that he can find his bliss sometime soon.