Irrational Man

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Woody Allen makes no secret of the famous literary work most influential in the writing of his screenplay for Irrational Man (2015). Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is sighted and cited in this enjoyably tension-free drama of a philosophy professor filled to the brim with ideas but no longer a zest for life itself. Trapped in a vault of dark contemplation from which even his physical comfort in liberal sexual relations has been short-circuited by his malaise of despair, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), enters a new university – with each fresh residency his reputation precedes him with even loftier notions of – and the circuit of a curious student, Jill (Emma Stone), who quickly becomes unhealthily obsessed with him. An unquenchable thirst for knowledge and experience – in direct contrast to that provided by her squeaky clean boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley) who wears her gifted sweater as a badge of honour and wholesomeness – soon turns to romantic delusions of her compatibility to Abe. This is further reinforced the deeper she probes, uncovering a circuitous torture of dissatisfaction and apathy that she’d love to correct with the alluring distractions of her youthful presence.

In the spirit of Dostoyevsky’s classic however, it’s contemplation of the murder of a life that contributes nothing useful to the world that kick-starts the fire in Abe’s belly. Suddenly he becomes enamoured with life’s renewed possibilities, the thought of eliminating a negative force for the betterment of the world, in this case a pitiless judge whose prejudicial behaviour has ruined the life of a mother seeking fair play in retaining custody of her children. Abe is alerted to the judge’s existence by an overheard conversation in a diner and the path is set for a perfect crime to be plotted and executed. All sorts of moral boundaries are examined and cross-examined and if Allen’s digressions are camouflaged in blackly humorous asides, there’s enough seriousness here to provoke thought as the crime exposes, as it inevitably must do, a series of playfully dangerous options for the cocky, renewed Abe.

Will he confess in the manor of Dostoyevsky’s tortured Raskolnikov? Will the sly dispatching of the judge be the beginning of a murderous spree that strengthens him physically and restore his mental balance? Or will his new found expression of joy for living be only momentary as he’s undone by hubris like countless perpetrators before him? With its hilariously tasty final twist, Irrational Man stands as a strong addition to Allen’s filmography. Though it’s not in the same class as his recent creative high points, Midnight in Paris (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013), it does straddle a too rarely inhabited middle ground of quality, in so doing helping to erase memories of the director’s recent diabolical flops like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and the especially awful When in Rome (2012).

As usual, Allen’s casting is spot on, with Phoenix in fine form as the unhurried, laid-back Abe whose apathy seems to be more characteristic of the actor’s process with his very idiosyncratic line-recitations. Few performers, it seems, are capable of providing such a strange but utterly compelling mix of inward-gazing intensity with a cheerless playfulness that only reinforces the inscrutability around his character. The sparky Stone holds her own and even if her performance doesn’t require her to stretch in the way Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu asked her to in Birdman (2014), there’s nothing left hanging in her credible portrayal of the smitten Jill. Parker Posey has a juicy role as a fellow faculty member who unsubtly attempts to bed Abe from the moment he arrives to escape her own failing marriage, whilst the rest of the supporting players form a steady wall of secondary support.

Inherent Vice

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With his latest, director Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most unique and lauded voices in modern American cinema, has really gone out on a limb. It’s some undertaking to tackle the sprawling, rarely coherent Thomas Pynchon whose work has never been previously converted to the big screen for good reason. ‘Untranslatable’ is the most often cited reason for the absence, but Anderson, ever seeking to expand his range as an artist, has taken a shot at delving into Pynchon’s supposedly most accessible world, that of early 1970’s LA in his more recent novel Inherent Vice.

That the director sought to continue this next leg of his filmic odyssey with Joaquin Phoenix – so stunning in The Master (2012) – is no bad thing at all. Phoenix took Freddie Quell, an inherently, compellingly flawed character in that film and turned him into a monstrous, frail being full of raging complexities. Here, tapping into the retro slacker spirit of the apathetically doom-laden, he effortlessly embodies Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a laid back hippie private eye whose ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) lands on his doorstep one night to ask a favour. Soon Doc is chasing his tail through a labyrinth of possible corruption of all sorts as people go walkabout and bodies turn up. Doc’s nemesis, as he navigates the city’s sleazy, tripped-out late night underbelly, is a lumbering detective, Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (played with utter relish by Josh Brolin, in possibly his finest hour to date).

Brimming with cartoonish, eccentric characters and a shape-shifting mystery plot to which Anderson is sometimes a little too betrothed, the film proves to be a sprawling, colourful jaunt via a time machine to an era preoccupied with chemically enhanced consciousness and far less with logic and coherence. The mechanics of the ever-percolating plot work both for and against the film’s overall impact. It often feels like becoming a random, incoherent trawl through L.A. with a plethora of diversions to keep Doc guessing at the fleeting, mysterious impunities of life. And yet as a representative glimpse into the jumbled mind of its main character and his associates, it works wonderfully well.

Sometimes, however, you just wish Anderson had let himself completely off the leash and thrown Pynchon’s source –as quote-worthy as some of his best dialogue is – into a waste bin. So many outstanding moments – many in which Doc and Bigfoot are brought together – hint at the further hilarity that might have been explored. A phone call scene in which Bigfoot’s berating wife runs rough-shod over her physically imposing husband is just one classic case-in-point. Somehow, despite being somewhat stymied by Pychon’s overactive narrative doodling, Anderson is able to burrow beneath the smokescreens to uncover the unlikely heart and soul of the story, often employing his deceptively long takes to give his actors manoeuvring room.

Perhaps the pacing will be too leisurely for some and the ride over-crammed with inconsequential ramblings, but there’s an offbeat love story to be treasured here and another of Anderson’s flawlessly assembled casts to breathe life into it all. Many well-known faces, like Benecio Del Toro and Reece Witherspoon, vanish as quickly as they appear. Phoenix and Brolin are the standouts, though the intermittent presence and voiceover of Joanna Newson as Doc’s subtly incisive muse and spirit guide deserves special mention. Inherent Vice (2014) may not come close to Anderson’s finest work – in fact it may be close to his most minor effort to date – yet most directors would kill to produce something of this quality in their careers.