I think it might be time to start evaluating the career of Woody Allen by comparing it to the musical output of LL Cool J (aka James Todd Smith). After a strong start out of the gate with Radio (1985) and Bigger and Deffer (1987), LL was criticized for the commercial feel of Walking with a Panther (1989). He rebounded with Mama Said Knock You Out in 1990, but after that, seemed to volley back and forth between head-scratching works like 14 Shots to the Dome (1993) and more chart-centric fare like Mr. Smith (1995). Yes, the Rap superstar has, against the odds, been able to maintain a foothold in the musical world while establishing himself as a consistent actor, primarily on the small screen (NCIS: Los Angeles), but his hardcore Hip Hop fans have always pointed to the alternating swings in quality. It could be argued that this was part of a careful plan to perpetuate his burgeoning multimedia brand.
Woody Allen, on the other hand, has never actively invested in a significant creative venture outside of film, but he has stuck to an almost pathological routine of generating a feature film each year for several decades now. Like clockwork, the latest Woody Allen film arrives, with the same title credit format and font, as well as the familiar Jazz accompaniment.
And for the Allen regulars or the critical watchers, a pattern has emerged — a noticeable pendulum swing in terms of the quality of the work, especially his more recent efforts. The real highlights — 2005’s crass look at morality and destiny in Match Point, 2008’s sexually charged Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2011’s wonderful Midnight in Paris and the show-stopping turn by Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (2013) — were all offset by momentary lapses in creative reason. Scoop (2006), You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and Magic in the Moonlight (2014) feel like listless shrugs for the most part, for both Allen and his audience.
Which means that, for those keeping track, his latest, Irrational Man, should be counted on the positive side of the spectrum — which is true, but the exuberance of those past high-water marks is toned down in this case. Allen, like Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), the bad-boy celebrity philosopher who finds himself in exile at a small liberal arts university enclave, knows that the public is attuned to the patterns of his work life and he’s actively striving to figure a way out of this perceived rut.
The filmmaker decides to go small, too, with a simple narrative set up. He offers Abe a choice of lovers — a thoroughly infatuated student (Emma Stone) and a bored colleague (Parker Posey) eager to make a break from her own mind-numbing existence — but they merely provide the seeds for a much darker challenge, an existential test that will come to define Abe’s character forever.
Phoenix extends a rather remarkable run, one that has had me elevating him to the level of Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis occupies the performative space I equate with the ideal definition of “genius,” and not the overused labeling so prevalent in today’s world. He stands alone at the top of the pyramid, but Phoenix has been making a case for inclusion in that rarefied air.
And with Irrational Man he adds another piece of evidence for consideration. Allen’s films tend to contain performances that seek to imitate or possibly even parody the haltingly neurotic mannerisms of the writer-director. More times than I care to remember, I have wondered if the affectations were actively pursued with Allen’s blessing.
Phoenix deserves recognition for avoiding this path entirely. Instead, he has burrowed furiously inside the character, animating the sagging intellectual skin of a man we are supposed to see early on as a legendary figure, a stereotype among the academic set on the verge of diving headlong into the shallow end and certain inevitable death. Even as he follows the prescribed moves, step by step, Phoenix allows us to see the character as a man, an individual who has, in some ways, surrendered to the current sweeping him up.
His effort shines a curious light on the Allen dilemma as well, because Irrational Man, upon closer inspection, feels like a minor reinvention. Allen tends to work best within intimate spaces featuring actors that use humor and intelligence as the building blocks to create characters with beautiful, if ultimately flawed, human minds and hearts. But here that humor is absent, leaving a void that renders the frame even more claustrophobic for his intended audience, some of whom may refuse to enter the cramped quarters.
Sadly, they will miss out on an irrational gem. (Opens Friday) (R) Grade: B+