Yes, the question of ‘why’ is often a satisfying one, but it is just as often immaterial. And while there are many reasons for this, just one should suffice: that people, being quite curious, will apply their curiosity towards questions that are insoluble, wrongly assuming that, since the cosmos offers up some answers, it can provide all of them. It simply won’t, however, since the questions we have learned to ask are not questions we have adapted to. In some cases, this is easily solved by letting go, by recognizing appropriate human limits. In others, however, it is more so that the relevant terms have never been defined, out of ignorance, out of inability, or both.
Art falls somewhere between these two realities, partly because it is more a question of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ to begin with. Take, for instance, the issue of artistic trajectory: the inevitable arcs that all artists seem to go through, and, despite thousands of years of examples, these same artists’ failure to recognize them, much less avoid them. In short, it is true that most great artists will eventually start to repeat themselves in rather pallid ways; most great artists will forget how their art came about in the first place, content, as they are, to merely re-capture the spirit of youth; most great artists will, for lack of a better term, dull, dull, dull, and many (if not most) will never notice this in others or in themselves. Indeed, it is as if their decline somehow forces the world — or at least their conception of it — to acclimate to such, wherein nothing seems to move, nothing seems ‘wrong’. Sure, it is easy for people to see a boxer as washed-up, or smile at a fat, aging baseball player with the knowledge of what they had once accomplished. But this doesn’t seem to apply to the arts, for while every animal has a functional body, the human mind is somehow thought to be unique. It does not age. It doesn’t go. And this conception does not die, or else it is assumed that there was not much there to begin with.
Yet as limiting as this view of art and the artist is, connoisseurs can be quite rabid, which is sometimes a good thing. Recently, this has been the case with Woody Allen’s Irrational Man (2015), a mediocre film that (as with other films he has done over the past decade) borrows heavily from earlier masterpieces. Yes, this is a common plaint, but the deeper point is that he’s borrowing things with little understanding of how those elements worked so well in the original films: the real sin, in fact, since a borrowing that leads to artistic greatness is no sin at all. Thus, I find myself in agreement with not only the consensus surrounding the film (42% on RottenTomatoes, which is about the same score that Woody’s 2007 classic, Cassandra’s Dream, received), but also some of the reasoning of individual critics themselves. In short, Irrational Man is neither well-acted nor well-scripted, suffers from both character and narrative cliches, and has one of the very worst endings in a Woody film: Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) looking out into the ocean, reflecting on recent events, and coming to an ‘acceptance’ that, due to the flatness of the characters involved, goes nowhere, which Allen does not even attempt to save by way of a technical trick or a memorable line or two. It is merely there, to be taken at face value, a technique Woody has often employed to good effect but in a very different context: one in which the characters are well-defined and full from the viewer’s emotional investments that make even the smallest of events quite memorable.
The film begins with professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) and his clearly infatuated student, Jill Pollard, spending more and more time together: a setup for a predictable narrative arc tempered only by the unconventional plot-points that crop up in its telling. Abe is, from the beginning, practically the stereotype of the dark, brooding intellectual, and Jill the ‘savior’ of a man who is out to destroy himself. One of the film’s better parts is their initial interaction, wherein Abe continually rebuffs Jill’s advances, offering her good, logical reasons for this, yet continues to make plans to see her, anyway, since he clearly likes the attention, and wishes for an ‘accident’ to occur for which he could feign disbelief. This clues the viewer in re: Abe’s slipshod character, thus lulling the viewer into further extremes as the story progresses. Jill, for her part, merely stalks after Abe, ignores her boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) in favor of her new love, only to self-consciously play the naive, confused, and manipulated woman when she attempts to restore her former life with the dumb boyfriend. In fact, these sorts of touches and inversions can be quite good, and is really when Stone’s character is at her best. But while cunning and selfishness can utterly define a character (see Judy in 1992’s Husbands And Wives), there simply aren’t enough revelatory moments to carry the film: one has to depend on the (limited) character arcs, themselves, rather than their inner details, ensuring that the film is more of a clash of concepts than of personalities trying to find their way in a well-limned universe.
That can still work, of course, but since a good chunk of the Irrational Man is dedicated to Abe’s murder plot, the day-to-day planning it involves, and its ultimate unraveling, it is precisely these details — no matter how superficial in a deeper film — that ought to be crucial. Yes, it has been argued that Woody’s decision to have Abe court danger by constantly bringing up the murder fleshes out the man’s psychology, thus turning him into someone who WANTS to be discovered, but this is hard to accept. Abe may be self-loathing, but he is also sociopathic, and while self-loathing might lend itself to guilt, sociopathy does not. He willingly enters into one unethical affair, drags out another, and even attempts to commit suicide in front of a large crowd of college kids for the attention. In other words, he is a collation of flaws rather than a truly flawed entity, which is really the difference between, say, a Judah Rosenthal (Crimes And Misdemeanors) and some Woody’s lesser villains. Further, this narrative tack is marred by its sheer predictability. Abe is a talker, and as soon as he begins to drop little clues about himself, we know exactly what will be revealed by film’s end. Throw in a spurned mistress into the mix, and the viewer knows not only what will be revealed, but how, thus obviating the only thing that might save an intellectually feeble work of art: its craft. And, indeed, as the plot begins to unravel, Abe begins to plan a second murder, the details of which are hidden, yes, but since their revelation is neither clever — as in, say, 2006’s underrated Scoop — nor given the technical depth of 2005’s Match Point, wherein an opera lends poesy to the context, the acting stays expressive, and the inversions, and the reversions, all play upon a viewer’s emotional needs, this is, by contrast, nothing more than a plot device. In short, Woody decided that the script merely needs to get from Point A to Point B. The in-between does not really matter. What matters is that it gets there, thus inverting the very thing that makes art, well, art, as opposed to the thousand other things it could be.
As noted, the film ends with Jill’s further manipulations (she learns nothing), as well as declarations for a ‘future’ that ring quite hollow. One can argue this is merely a further excoriation of Jill, who is only slightly more likeable than the film’s murderer, and this wouldn’t be a bad point. Yet how can excoriation really matter when the person that is being polemicized against is not even her own person, but a few bad traits sprinkled across the bland situations they find their limited expression in? Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for RogerEbert.com, notes that Woody’s final product is “a collection of notes for a film that never quite evolved to the rough draft stage,” even as he (wrongly) compares it to Jade Scorpion, Celebrity, and Scoop as “misfires”: all good films that work precisely because they are either fully fleshed out (as in Celebrity), or because their machinations are clever enough, and the acting good enough, that the lack of depth is forgivable. Yes, Seitz goes on to hammer some of the film’s flaws, such as the “declamatory” script, which sounds as if it were written — due to Woody’s self-borrowings — by the director’s imitators rather than Woody himself. But Seitz also doesn’t get basic human mechanics, wherein he scoffs at a respected professor’s superficiality (it is in fact common), or that Jill would fall for it, as if young women are NOT routinely blinded by status, or can so easily interpenetrate things. Indeed, for all the film’s flaws, their romance, as well as its inevitable doom, is a realistic touch that plays out across college campuses thousands of times each year. And for all his talk of Woody braiding his own noose, Seitz goes off the deep end by alluding to the director’s personal life, as if the sexual abuse of a 7 year-old girl (a psychopathic act) can in any way be compared to an immature college professor giving in to the overtures of a collegiate nubile. Say what you will of the ethics of such, but the two acts are on wholly different axes, and only a dunce would argue otherwise.
Seitz, like others, derides the film’s obvious flaws but praises the acting — a common ploy repeated by many critics, since in this way they could remain ‘critical’ of a work, as a whole, but still give the impression that they are not hard-asses. This is partly due to how hard it is for most viewers to differentiate between good and bad acting, for even critics refuse to condescend with real examples for their claims. Alistair Harkness begins his review with the now-trendy vitriol for both Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, then praises Irrational Man’s “clever casting” with the following ‘reasons’: “The actor fights against the rigidity of both the script and the Allen archetype to imbue his line-readings with the same laconic naturalness he brings to his work for Paul Thomas Anderson.” Yet what does this even mean, when ‘naturalness,’ in such non-specificity, could just as easily be a stand-in for the words predictable and rote — especially when there is nary an expression, look, gesture, an off-hand mannerism, something, anything, that can be construed as great acting? If Joaquin Phoenix delivers a line especially well, where, exactly, does this happen, and how does it occur? If Emma Stone does something special, something realistic, something believable with her hands, something a viewer might not even think about until they are pressed to think about it, could we replay the footage and see what’s being described? And while theirs is far from outright bad acting, it is just as distant from good acting, a crucial difference that few seem to get. Sure, with lesser talents, one could keep a tally of all their missteps, then turn the sum against them. In this case, however, there is really no tally to keep, ensuring that, for all the lack of lacks, there is no plenum, either, which, for all of Woody’s history with great actors, feels just as bad.
And the issues pile on. As Cameron Meier suggests, many of Woody’s late films either over-explain their ideas or have no real ideas to offer. In this way, the two characters’ narration is (as with parts of Vicky Cristina Barcelona) needlessly recapitulative, focusing on things a careful viewer already knows or will figure out, offering no real glimpse into these characters’ drives. Does it have to? No, but even the narration in, say, Annie Hall, Alvy’s comments — while often recapitulative — are so well-phrased that it doesn’t really matter. At other points, Alvy’s narration contradicts what the viewer actually knows, thus cementing the film’s illusions while obliquely commenting on them, too. By contrast, Irrational Man provides filler by revisiting a technique that once served Woody quite well, yet in forgetting the ‘how,’ becomes something else entirely; becomes like anything, really, that is ripped from its proper context, and is therefore denatured. Nor are the film’s ideas particularly deep, and while this can be said for most ideas in the art world, the difference is that when they are filtered through good characters and narrative, these ideas transform. They are now real-world forces, affecting (and afflicting) people in a real-world way, and are thus polished, changed, and polished once more in a manner that is simply impossible with declamations. This is why Judah Rosenthal of Crimes And Misdemeanors is not ‘merely’ conflicted about moral choices, but negotiates them in a way that is hyperrealistic, and therefore frightening. This is why Judah’s rabbi is not ‘merely’ blind, with the wan symbolism this might entail, but, in the film’s last scene, is shown to have constructed his own world in a way that nothing can really penetrate. It is, I think, one of the only times that living in a ‘bubble’ can be construed as desirable: an impossible thing to argue, perhaps, but easy to take in and viscerally understand by way of imagery and poesy. THIS is what made those earlier films so good, and why forgetting what is seemingly tangential — the stuff that’s implicit, the things that need to be teased out — spells artistic failure for those that once employed tangents to such great effect.
I’ve already hypothesized re: creative problems in advanced age, yet in people’s gross desire to get at every ‘why,’ they miss some more obvious questions and a few important answers. It doesn’t matter why artists decline over time because there is a far larger issue: creative inconsistency in artists of quality and youth, wherein a great work of art can be followed by a mediocre one, then another great one, then a terrible one, then a great one. Yet to understand how a work of art, well, works, and be able to apply these principles, over and over again, can help stave off age-related decline despite the original cause. If an artist KNOWS why a technique once served him well, and recognizes the adjustments that must be made if it’s ever ripped out of its original context, or understands the what and wherefore of narrative, of character, of world-building, language, poesy, image, and the like, then he will know when it is no longer working: when it is time to either adapt or to move on. For the most part, Woody has been unable to do this, as seen both in his self-deprecating comments about some of his own best work, as well as in the films, themselves. So far, we have not had any artists re-create themselves in late age, and on the evidence of the last 8 years — Woody’s only extended period of consecutive misses — things will only get worse.