Irrational Man

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley

Director: Woody Allen

Writer: Woody Allen


Woody Allen is to screenwriting what John Williams is to music or Meryl Streep is to acting; at this point he can write an Oscar-worthy screenplay in his sleep. Even if the film he makes isn’t as great or as groundbreaking as Annie Hall, Manhattan or Midnight in Paris, more often than not there will be something in it that’s worthwhile to watch. At his best Allen can offer a film that is intelligent without being pretentious, casual without being dull, and hilarious without being silly. He is very good at offering stories with original yet simple concepts and at discussing complex themes and ideas in a smart yet accessible way. Even after four decades of writing and directing great and innovative films, he is still able to find new and interesting stories to tell. His latest offering Irrational Man is not one of his best but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to enjoy or to get drawn into. Even when he’s being generic Allen is still able to craft a smart and enjoyable film that is well worth watching.

The story of Irrational Man is told from the perspectives of Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), a tortured philosophy professor whose turbulent life and radically pessimistic ideas have rendered him without any sense of purpose or motivation in life, and Jill (Emma Stone), an eager philosophy student who is drawn and attracted to Abe’s brilliant mind and tormented psyche. They form a bond with each other that appeals to both Abe’s bleak search for meaning and to Jill’s romanticised desires. Their escapades eventually lead them to a chance encounter that invigorates a new sense of purpose into Abe’s life. He is suddenly presented with an objective that awakens a long-forgotten sense of passion and enthusiasm; it is a purpose that is in and of itself both misguided and depraved (and yes, irrational as well) but which he nevertheless pursues with a newfound sense of fulfilment.

The film for the most part is typical Woody Allen. The characters often engage each other in debates on philosophy but do so in ways that don’t feel dull or ostentatious. Allen has never been one for self-indulgence; he merely depicts clever characters who discuss intellectual topics in ways that feels nonchalant and natural. Irrational Man is no different. The film also contains that Woody Allen quirkiness that allows him to depict a story with quite a twisted concept in a laidback and comedic way. Phoenix has pretty much made his name playing eccentric and unstable characters and so Abe naturally fits him like a glove. He is able to play the character in the erratic and unhinged manner that he knows how to do well and the chemistry he shares with Stone feels authentic and sincere. Stone for her part does well playing a capable yet credulous student whose romanticised inclinations are just as misguided as Abe’s resolute purpose.

However, as much as I enjoyed this film, I still don’t think it rates as one of Allen’s best. There are parts when I felt the dialogue was too on-the-nose and I felt that narrations of both of the main characters were for the most part unnecessary. Allen’s greatest strength is usually his dialogue but oftentimes he can be accused of taking it too far by stating things that simply don’t need to be stated (or at least don’t need to be stated directly). I was also somewhat off-put by Parker Poesy’s character Rita, who I felt was out of place in this story. I wasn’t sure what point her character was meant to serve and her inclusion felt more like an afterthought to me. I do think that Posey played the character just fine, I just don’t think her presence really brought anything to the story. Jamie Blackley at least has a clear role to serve as Roy, Jill’s all-round decent boyfriend who becomes jealous and even hurt by her growing attachment to Abe. His role doesn’t amount to much more than that, but at least its something.

This film may for the most part be a generic Woody Allen film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Allen remains one of the most gifted and intelligent screenwriters in Hollywood and so even a generic screenplay by him is going to be worthy of praise. Irrational Man offers a lot for the audience to enjoy from interesting characters to an offbeat story to intelligent and absorbing dialogue. The way that Allen is able to portray the story of a deeply disturbed man who embarks on a perverse journey in a way that comes across as reserved and quirky shows that he has still indeed got it and is in no danger of becoming inapt or irrelevant anytime soon. Irrational Man is smart, funny and engaging and is a fine addition to Woody Allen’s considerable body of work.

★★★★

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Inherent Vice

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson


I am a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and his work. There Will Be Blood stands out in particular as one of my all time favourite films. Therefore I was very much looking forward to seeing Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon book of the same name. Having not read any of Pynchon’s work, it is my understanding that he is famous for writing novels that many consider to be unfilmable – dense and complex stories with large narratives and interweaving characters. If any director is capable of adapting that kind of story to the screen, it’s definitely Anderson. His work on Magnolia shows that he knows how to make a film that encompasses several different stories and characters that all serve to articulate an overarching narrative. However, unlike Magnolia, I did not find myself to be particularly impressed or entertained by this film. The trouble is that I cannot figure out whether this is because Anderson has failed as a writer and director to convey this story or if I have failed as a viewer to understand it. I always try to be careful not to fall into the trap of dismissing a film just because I don’t get it, so I will try to proceed with caution.

As best as I understand it, the story involves the private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who is called upon to investigate three different cases that intertwine with one another and all point to one elaborate conspiracy. The first of these cases arrives in the form of Shasta (Katherine Waterston), an old flame who asks Doc to save her new lover Mickey Wolfmann from a plot devised by Mickey’s wife and her lover. The second comes in the form of a Black Guerrilla Family member who hires Doc to track down an Aryan Brotherhood member who owes him money. This AB member Glen Charlock happens to be one of Mickey Wolfmann’s bodyguards. The third case comes in the form of Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a former drug addict who appeals to Doc to find her missing husband Coy (Owen Wilson), a saxophone player who she’s been told is dead but whom she believes to be alive. All the while the narration of Doc’s journey is provided by the (possibly) ethereal Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) whose guidance often helps Doc whenever he is stuck.

The film is set in California during the psychedelic 70s and Doc is very much a man of his time. He is a lethargic stoner without any drive or ambition who is only spurred into action by a desire to win his ex-girlfriend back. He wanders aimlessly from place to place and stumbles his way into sticky situations that he meets with a somewhat apathetic attitude. Phoenix plays him to perfection. The problem is that I did not find his story to be very engaging. As soon as we are introduced to Doc, the film presents us with plot point after plot point and never allows any time for the audience to take it all in. Perhaps this was intentional on Anderson’s part, to present the viewer with an overabundance of information in order to convey a chaotically absurd tone that engulfs the viewer with an overwhelming sense of incongruity and arouses their curiosity. However such a concept only works if the viewer is at least entertained and stimulated by what is happening even if they cannot necessarily follow or understand it, kind of like watching an episode of Louie. Even in the parts where I was able to follow what was happening, I simply wasn’t very interested or absorbed by what was happening or by what Doc was going through. I never found myself rooting for him and I never found myself overcome by the chaotic strangeness of what was happening.

There are certainly strong points to this film. There are a wide range of eccentric characters played impeccably by their actors, especially Lt. Det. Christian F. ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a comically hard as nails cop who relentlessly persecutes Doc and beats him indiscriminately. Anderson, who is famous for his attention to detail, expertly creates an environment that depicts 1970s California with its sunny beaches, vibrant clothing and bizarre people all clouded by the hazy fog of smoke through which Doc views the world. He also includes a plethora of visual gags, from Bigfoot and his chocolate-coated bananas to the hippie recreation of the Last Supper, that provide the film with humourous highlights. However it is difficult to appreciate the strengths of this film when confronted with an overwhelming lack of engagement in the overall story.

I find myself wondering whether this is a film that I could possibly grow to appreciate with successive viewings. However, if it is the case that this film needs to be viewed multiple times in order to be appreciated, does that make it a good film or a bad one? If I had read Pynchon’s book beforehand and allowed this vast and complicated story to develop at my own pace, would I have been able to engage with this film and enjoy what Anderson was able to bring to it and, more importantly, would that make it a good adaptation or a bad one? Usually when I’m struggling to understand a film, I find that the best way to assess it is by my engagement and emotional response. A few weeks ago I went to watch the thematically similar Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and, even though I did not have a fucking clue what was happening, I was still able to enjoy the film for its wonderfully strange visuals, its twisted humour and its ridiculously weird characters. Inherent Vice, in contrast, failed to engross me in what was happening and failed to have any significant impact on me. While writing this review it occurred to me that I cannot even remember how the film ends. I’m sure that there are many who disagree with me and who enjoyed this film, but for me it was simply not captivating or memorable.

★★