Film review of Irrational Man

August 21, 2015

(This film review of “Irrational Man” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 August 2015.)

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone and Parker Posey

Even on a bad day, a Woody Allen movie is worth watching. While his latest film, “Irrational Man”, is a distinctly minor addition to his impressive oeuvre, it contains at least two performances of extraordinary quality and attempts to deal with philosophical questions that most directors avoid.

Allen’s film career as a writer, director and actor now spans more than 50 years. “Irrational Man” returns to one of Allen’s favoured themes, of evil deeds going unpunished. He explored this in great length in the comedy-drama, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, which was set partly against the background of his character’s obsession with the Holocaust.

“Irrational Man” instead takes an academic approach through its main character Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor played by Joaquin Phoenix, who arrives at a small New England college suffering from writer’s block and general ennui. Unable to progress his book on Heidegger and fascism, he commences a desultory affair with a depressed married colleague, Rita Richards (Parker Posey). And against his better judgment, he is drawn into second affair with one of his brightest undergraduate students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), the daughter of two local professors – both of them obviously Jewish. Both women want to be rescued by Lucas, who in turn is seeking some escape from his lonely and alcohol-fuelled musings (“just what the world needs, another book on Heidegger and fascism”).

I have never been a fan of screen alcoholics, as perpetual drunks are rarely fun to watch, and following their journeys is rarely interesting. Abe’s situation creates a structural problem for the plot of “Irrational Man”, so Abe’s tortured character decides to do something drastic to rouse himself (no plot spoilers here). As Abe, a mis-cast Phoenix falls into his classic speech-slurring mumble, spouting philosophical truisms (“anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”), but without the conviction that other actors have been able to give to Allen’s intellectual lines.

By contrast, Parker Posey and Emma Stone both shine in their roles, creating two believable and totally watchable characters. If this film were stronger, I would tip both for possible Academy Award nominations. But the weak and underwritten plot with a too-easy ending and Phoenix’s loose performance all weigh it down. Despite the scenic Rhode Island setting and a few cute pop culture references (“I am at a ‘Zabriskie Point’ moment”), “Irrational Man” leaves little emotional resonance.

Last year, the New York Post posed the question, “Does Woody Allen write good roles for women, or is he a great director of women?” Seven performances in Woody Allen films have won Academy Awards, six of them for women, an almost unparalleled achievement. “Irrational Man” contains two more good female roles, unfortunately lost in a flawed film.

(Photo below: Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in “Irrational Man”)

Irrational Man


In Selma the film, Martin Luther King is a man who listens

March 1, 2015

I am too young to remember Dr Martin Luther King, but I am not that young that I have not been deeply influenced by his legacy as the leading American civil rights campaigner.

“Selma”, the biopic of a slice of Martin Luther King’s life, can be a deeply affecting experience, at least for those of us for whom the American civil rights movement remains an important cultural, political and social touchstone.

Director Ava DuVernay, an African-American woman who seems to have held many roles in film from publicist to writer and director, has arrived without fanfare to show us that she is one of the strongest directors in contemporary film. Her re-creation of historical events – a number of key activities taking place primarily in Alabama in the southern US – and her ability to portray recent historical figures on screen is astonishing, especially African-Americans: King himself (an amazing performance by David Oyelowo), Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Bayard Rustin, Mahalia Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) and even a brief appearance by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). The white historical figures are equally as good: Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Governor George Wallace of Alabama (Roth), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and a host of others. But the film’s ability to get “inside” the African-American characters gives them three-dimensionality, substance and coherent identity – that is this film’s greatest achievement.

I am not quite certain why “Selma” is not more popular in the USA, hovering just over US$50 million in the theatrical box office as I write this. While not a flop, this is by no means a success. Part of it may be the mini-controversy over the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson: the film shows a number of discussions between King and Johnson, and paints Johnson as deliberate, strategic (fair enough) but wanting to hold King back at every turn. “You have one cause to worry about,” Johnson says to King at one point, “I have 101 causes.”

Those who live outside of the USA, unless they have read widely in American history, have no true concept of the enduring stain and trail of social dysfunction and blight that the history of slavery and racism has left on that country. Even today, African-Americans are heavily over-represented in American jails and prisons: six times the rate of whites, and nine times the rate for young black men.rs in jail.

As the film “Selma” points out, institutionalised disenfranchisement of African-Americans did not end with the abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. As late as the mid-1960s, African-American voting rights were widely ignored, particularly – and especially – in the south. Just to be clear, this meant that in large areas of the south at that time, African-Americans simply were unable to vote, enforced through a wide range of tricks, regulations and petty bureaucracies. In turn this meant that they could not serve of trial juries, with deeply negative implications for African-American interactions with the justice and court systems. The master strategist King understood all of that. In an early scene in “Selma”, an older African-American woman attempts to enrol to vote and is asked a wide range of questions, including reciting the preamble to the American Constitution (she can, can you?), and finally rejected. It’s a heartbreaking moment; the woman is Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey).

It’s a shame that “Selma” will not be more widely seen in the USA or even here in Australia, where it has barely registered with the audience, other than with film critics, who wholeheartedly endorsed it. The American civil rights movement had a direct effect on the cause of Indigenous justice here in Australia, inspiring a wide range of campaigners. But aside from Barack Obama, whose personal story captured the attention of many Australians, African-American stories are not popular here.

And finally, a comment as to why “Selma” is able to transcend the biographical film genre in new and unexpected ways. According to American film critic Max O’Connell, there are six ways to make a biopic live and breathe. I quote them directly from his review on letterboxd, rather than attempting to summarise:

*****

1. Focus on one small part of the character’s life.
2. Focus on the backroom deals, the horse-trading, the deal-making and the compromises needed to make progress.
3. Cast an actor who’s as good a listener as David Oyelowo, who’s commanding without ever feeling pre-bronzed because he’s constantly leaning in to what everyone’s saying and weighing information.
4. On top of that, get someone like Ava DuVernay to direct, as she’ll get the least-showy performances out of both actors that tend to show off (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Giovanni Ribisi) or characters that beg actors to give show-stopping performances (George Wallace, LBJ). Everything is perfectly measured, and with the exception of Martin Sheen as the world’s most dignified judge, none of the stars are particularly distracting (also: props to Oprah for never making scenes about her even in movies that seem to encourage it, a la “The Butler”).
5. Show the violence honestly without ever lingering too much on the brutality, instead showcasing how it affects the people and how they’ll have to adapt (or not).
6. When dealing with questions of whether or not the film’s noble center was a flawed man, don’t dodge the issue (here, it’s MLK’s philandering). Show how it hurt the people around them. At the same time, show how it’s just one facet, not an all-consuming problem, and that it’s insignificant compared to the work he did.

*****
I particularly love O’Connell’s point number 3: David Oyelowo’s King actively LISTENS to the people around him. This is something that a large number of leaders and those in power are unable or unwilling to do. King apparently did this, and in “Selma” Oyelowo illustrates it beautifully, in scene after scene. In his short film career – Oyelowo has also starred in “The Butler” – for me, this actor with the sonorous voice has already earned his place in the pantheon of great screen performances, Oscar nominations or not.

David Oyelowo in Selma


Twelfth Night, or What You Will

February 9, 2014

About one month after I turned 18, as a senior in high school in New Jersey, I acted in the role of Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  Our play director was Robert (Bob) Stevens, the school’s drama teacher, a man who made a profound impact on the professional and creative lives of a number of generations of my high school’s students.

He was a former southerner, from Virginia, and that spring production of Twelfth Night was the school’s first attempt at Shakespeare.  It was a great success, at least I remember it so.  But what did I know – I was 18 and thought that I had the lead role.

I didn’t, of course.  You hardly see Sebastian in the play.  But my experience was akin to that of Tom Stoppard’s lead characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: they may be off-stage for most of Hamlet, but they are convinced that the story is really about them.

An article by Hilton Als in the November 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker (“The Mirror Has Two Faces”) gives a joyful elucidation of Twelfth Night’s themes, reviewing Tom Carroll’s production at the Belasco theatre in New York City (closing on February 16th).  Here are two excerpts:

How marvellous it can be to let go of one’s self-conscious rationalizing, with its fear of the uncontrollable, like joy, and sink helplessly into the theatre of feelings—tender and coarse, confused and projected, authentic and invented—that drives “Twelfth Night.”

For days after I saw “Twelfth Night,” questions about the play and about Shakespeare reverberated in my mind. (Despite my love of mystery, I am, like most humans, a problem-solving animal.) How did he do it? How did he construct such a popular work out of “outsider” thoughts about gender and cross-dressing? By opening himself up to creative empathy, certainly. Where most of us succumb to the limiting power of self-preservation, Shakespeare rushed toward the enormous freedom that can come with “why”—the spirit of inquiry that jump-starts the imagination.

I was swept up with the glorious words of the play (once I could understand the words, they were delightful), but only vaguely aware of the radical gender-bending and cross-dressing elements in it.  The innocence of youth.  And Bob Stevens was nothing if not a brave man when it came to drama.  By my count, no less than five of those who acted in the play with me later went on to professional acting careers.  An unusually large number?  Perhaps, or not.

To this day, my mind is immediately transported back to that stage of so long ago when I hear the words,

“If music be the food of love, play on …”

My close friend Steve played Sebastian’s friend and confidant Antonio, and it was only a few years ago (some decades after I last acted) that I stopped reciting Sebastian’s great soliloquy, which reads thus:

This is the air; that is the glorious sun;
This pearl she gave me, I do feel’t and see’t;
And though ’tis wonder that enwraps me thus,
Yet ’tis not madness. Where’s Antonio, then?
I could not find him at the Elephant:
Yet there he was; and there I found this credit,
That he did range the town to seek me out.
His counsel now might do me golden service;
For though my soul disputes well with my sense,
That this may be some error, but no madness,
Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune
So far exceed all instance, all discourse,
That I am ready to distrust mine eyes
And wrangle with my reason that persuades me
To any other trust but that I am mad
Or else the lady’s mad; yet, if ’twere so,
She could not sway her house, command her followers,
Take and give back affairs and their dispatch
With such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing
As I perceive she does: there’s something in’t
That is deceiveable. But here the lady comes.

Want to see the full script of Twelfth Nightclick here for an MIT-supplied version, part of their complete works of Shakespeare free online.

Twelfth Night1

Twelfth Night2