Despite his persona on-screen and even in interviews, it seems unlikely that Woody Allen has been seized by the kind of existential paralysis—one character describes it as “despair” though it seems more clinical—that Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is experiencing at the outset of Irrational Man, which opens today. That this is Allen’s 46th film in about five decades is the first clue that he’s never been too despairing to function. Abe works too, as a college professor new to a campus in Newport, Rhode Island, but his lectures flounder (even if his students, as the movie insists, love him) and he wanders around in a stupor, drinking from a flask, unable to perform sexually and, at one point, totally up for a round of Russian roulette (in other words, a worse place than just making Celebrity or Curse of the Jade Scorpion).
In Allen fashion, this behavior does not repel the women in his life; not a fellow professor (Parker Posey!) and not Jill (Emma Stone), an inquisitive student who hangs out with Abe on odd, mostly platonic pseudo-dates. It’s on one of these dates that Jill and Abe eavesdrop on a group discussing a punitive and possibly corrupt local judge. What follows is technically a plot twist, but one that even casual Allen fans may guess: Abe considers murder. After a career of theorizing, paper-writing, and occasional (unseen) activism, he wonders if discreetly killing off this judge (“direct action,” as he calls it) may be a way to affect genuine change in the world. The thought of it reinvigorates him, even allows him to enjoy French toast with cinnamon.
Abe spends a chunk of the movie walking along the line that has come to separate, somewhat unexpectedly, the two types of Woody Allen protagonists: those willing and unwilling to commit murder. The formation of that line has coincided with a couple of late-career developments for Allen: a murkier distinction between comedy and drama (hence the darkness of Match Point seeping into less intense work) and an embrace of a slimmed-down, old-fashioned short-story sensibility (hence that larkish lack of intensity). Irrational Man is less fleet than the similarly uncomplicated likes of Midnight in Paris or Magic in the Moonlight; it’s overnarrated (by both Phoenix and Stone), and awkwardly written in that familiar, perversely enjoyable Woody Allen way where a college student actually describes her professor as “very radical, very original” and his ideas as “romantic but so flawed”—though her accompanying diagnosis of “very conservative in kind of a liberal way” is pretty good. Not being particularly a romance or a comedy, it has fewer laugh lines to pull it out of its more plodding moments, though Posey gives several of her lines a funny spin. The movie is most “fun” when Abe discusses the fabled perfect murder, both with himself and others, turning lofty discussions of morality and philosophy into curdled dinner-party theorizing.
Much could be made of Allen’s real-life scandals, and whether Irrational Man sees him atoning or self-justifying through his art. But while he captures some images with offhand beauty, like a sequence of Phoenix and Stone walking through a carnival at night, the new film feels too theoretical for real provocation, intentional or otherwise. At one point, someone refers to Abe’s beyond-morality scheming as an “episode,” and that’s what this is, too. Allen dramatizes a thought experiment by having good actors attempt to bring his own thought experiment to life.
Something like Manhattan, for all of its potentially icky feelings now, feels lived more than theorized. At this point, even Allen’s US-set films aren’t usually shot in New York, so when Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow’s romantic comedy Trainwreck pays semi-snarky homage to Manhattan, it feels especially retro. Perhaps hoping to temper any implication of a feminist sympathizing with the nearly-80-year-old filmmaker, Trainwreck, also opening today, augments its shots of Schumer and Bill Hader on romantic New York dates, scored with “Rhapsody in Blue” and including a dirtier version of the famous bridge shot, with a Soon-Yi joke. The joke itself is a bit of a dodge, a way of tacitly acknowledging troubling allegations about Allen through the filter of the still-sketchy but not nearly as disturbing tabloid/late night talk show go-to. Schumer (who writes and stars) and Apatow (who directs) parsing their ability to make a Woody Allen reference feels indicative of Schumer’s current place in the comedy landscape, where she is both lauded as a provocative feminist comic speaking truth to power, punching up, and generally making good; and angrily attacked for not being inclusive, political, or righteous enough, especially when dealing with race—where “dealing with” now extends to any joke she has ever made over the course of her longer-than-you-might-expect career.
Of course, it may also be a slightly clunky joke because while Schumer has a shrewd cultural eye, as seen in her Football Night Lights parody on her sketch show, the kinds of references that dot a typical Apatow production aren’t really her thing (Trainwreck has two separate jokes about Game of Thrones; both feel kinda perfunctory and the funnier one is practically a non-sequitur). Trainwreck, the first movie Apatow has directed without co-writing, merges his hallmarks with hers, and while it’s undeniably Schumer’s voice, it reaches Apatowian conclusions about growing up—which may strike some as conservative in a kind of liberal way. But with Allen, good as he can be, operating as hermetically as ever (even given a few curious moments in Irrational Man where bit players manage to sound fascinatingly close to normal human speech), Apatow’s talent-outreach program certainly doesn’t feel conservative. If he keeps working with talent like Schumer or Lena Dunham, he may yet avoid swimming around in his own head.