A faithful allegiance to Woody Allen movies is like an addiction to a series of bad novels by an author admired in youth who is now cranking out variations on his earlier themes that one looks forward to if only for their familiarity. Allen’s films conform to a mold with such certainty that an evenness pervades that succeeds in regulating disparate levels of acting skills into the illusion of a committed ensemble. The dialog is seldom played at a level deeper that one might experience at the first read-through of a new play by an author whose greatest pleasure is hearing his lines read with the same finite emotion as fired by the author’s pen. The script never gets off the page. The actors never break out of Woody Allen’s skin. Yet we who follow Allen’s prolific career unfoldings do not complain. Attending his annual premieres is a ritual that provides something of a safe zone in a season of cinematic battering rams knocking us from screening room to screening room.
With “Irrational Man,” Allen takes on Dostoyevsky, but only to the extent of a welterweight warm-up bout. Since Allen’s films play so much like first drafts, I spend a lot of my imaginative time rewriting them as they unspool. By the time the movie is over, I have constructed a better one in my head, and often that is the movie I remember, which may be why I avoid re-seeing the films. But the ninety minutes a year spent watching one of these cookie-cutter movies provides such a pleasant respite from the enforced idiocy of most Hollywood product that I seldom regret the experience. Of the 50 or so movies Allen has written and directed, there are only half a dozen or so that I have disliked. And there are about the same number that I have found indispensable. The rest are just a marking of the years.
This tale of a philosophy professor who regains is love of life as well as his virility by the planning and execution of the perfect murder is a kissing cousin to ‘Stardust Memories,” especially in the relationship between the professor and and adoring student played by Emma Stone, who is a caricature of Jessica Harper’s character in “Stardust Memories.” As Allen has grown too old to play himself anymore, he has taken to hiring younger, popular actors to speak his lines. Joaquin Phoenix does an admirable job of creating his own character within the Allen stereotype, although the script prevents him from doing much with it. Emma Stone, on the other hand, is content to echo Jessica Harper.
“Irrational Man” is one of the forty movies Allen has written and directed that pleasantly remind us that the old man is still alive and productive. His best years may be behind him, but we should treasure him while he is still with us. As one fictional character once said of another fictional character, “We shall not look upon his like again.”