Ten years ago, Woody Allen bought himself a creative rejuvenation by finding a new leading lady in the fresh-faced, widely feted Scarlett Johansson. With Johansson in demand elsewhere, though, it’s no surprise that he has now gone back to the same well and fished up Emma Stone, an even nimbler and more likable comic actress than Johansson. Yet she hasn’t had the same catalyzing effect on him.
I think I know why. Johansson created a breed of Woody Allen heroine that we hadn’t seen before, characters who were brazenly and unapologetically sexual. Before she came along, Allen’s films tended to regard such characters with suspicion and fear tinged with fascination. With her, he was able to embrace it, and her luscious performances had a huge hand in the successes of Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Even in a failure like Scoop, she gave Allen a new energy.
Stone doesn’t project sexiness like Johansson. (Really, does anyone?) Instead, she comes off as intelligent and grounded, with a bubbly sense of fun. She has that in common with more than a few actresses. What makes her special is her particular brand of ironic sophistication, a fine-tuned awareness of the world’s expectations of attractive women like herself and a willingness to play with or against those expectations. That kind of understanding and her ability to mine it for laughs is thrilling in someone as young as her. You can see that quality in Easy A, The House Bunny, and especially her guest-hosting stints on Saturday Night Live. Woody Allen has not been able to come to terms with what she brings in Magic in the Moonlight and now Irrational Man, which expands into Tarrant County theaters this week. Until he does, he’s just wasting everyone’s time.
Stone plays Jill, a music student at a Rhode Island college who takes a summer philosophy class taught by troubled genius Abe (Joaquin Phoenix). Despite already having a boyfriend (Jamie Blackley), Jill is drawn to Abe, an alcoholic who repeatedly seduces his students and fellow professors.
It takes half an hour for something to happen. I can’t emphasize that point strongly enough. During that time, we’re repeatedly bludgeoned with the same information: Abe’s education and real-world experiences (which include charity work in war-torn regions) have taught him that life has no purpose and that nothing anyone does budges the evils of the world, and Jill finds all this deep for some reason. This setup brings out Allen’s worst tendencies as a writer. The movie is stuffed with Abe and Jill’s voiceover narration, which tells us nothing we can’t glean from what is taking place before our eyes. The filmmaker lets us know that Jill is in love with the concept of being in love with her professor by having Abe say, “You’re just in love with the concept of being in love with your professor.” Allen would undoubtedly say that he doesn’t make his movies for the dumbest members of his audience, but man, he sure does treat us like a bunch of idiots sometimes.
A story development finally happens when Abe and Jill overhear a divorcee (Susan Pourfar) in a restaurant tell her friends about how she’s being screwed out of custody of her kids. Like Raskolnikov — and, yes, Allen hits the literary reference squarely on the head — Abe decides that killing a bad man who’s a stranger to him and getting away with it will give his life meaning. We’ve been here before with Woody, in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream and many others. He doesn’t come up with anything new here. Nor does he evoke any danger, because the bouncy jazz soundtrack lets us know that nothing too terrible will happen. This isn’t a story. It’s two plot twists with a lot of padding in between. The whole exercise is sterile and emotionless. A three-page short story would have dealt with it more effectively. Oh, and chalk up yet another Woody Allen film where the younger woman falls into bed with the older man.
Through it all, Stone remains lively and alert, and her playing of the later scenes is the best thing here. Still, Woody Allen doesn’t seem to realize what he has in her. To be fair, he’s not the only filmmaker who has managed to look past her best qualities — she wasn’t well-served by Aloha or Crazy, Stupid, Love., either. She’s smartly working with reputable directors, but she needs to find better material from somewhere. I don’t know. Paul Feig? Wes Anderson? Lena Dunham? A movie musical? Whoever it is, someone else needs to show us just how precious Stone is.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]