[Screen It]


(2015) (Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone) (R)

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Drama: A once idealistic but now dejected and alcoholic professor finds purpose in his life when he plots to kill a corrupt judge, unbeknownst to his student-girlfriend and fellow professor-lover.
Abe Lucas (JOAQUIN PHOENIX) was once an idealistic young man determined to change the world, but now he's a dejected, alcoholic professor who's arrived on the Rhode Island campus of Braylin College to teach philosophy. Despite rumors of his past flings with both students and colleagues, Abe is unable to perform in bed with a married Braylin professor, Rita Richards (PARKER POSEY), who'd love to run away to Spain with him. Smartly, he has no interest in bedding one of his students, Jill Pollard (EMMA STONE), who's immediately attracted to his teachings and soul, despite having a committed and loving boyfriend in Roy (JAMIE BLACKLEY).

Abe and Jill end up spending a lot of time together, discussing a matter of things, including what they overhead in a local diner. That involved a young mother who's distraught that a corrupt official, Judge Thomas Spangler (TOM KEMP), is about to award custody of her kids to her deadbeat husband. When Abe gets the wild idea that it's up to him to save the day by ridding the world of such a person, he suddenly finds his purpose in life and his passion back in the sack. From that point on, and with neither Jill or Rita knowing of his plan, Abe sets out to practice what he teaches in class, not seeming to worry about the consequences.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
One of the first things any respectable screenwriting instructor will teach new students is the golden rule of "show, don't tell." In short, that refers to allowing readers (of the screenplay) and eventual viewers (of the film) to learn about story elements (characters, plot movements and twists, etc.) by observing them, rather than being told about them.

For instance, think of the opening scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" where Harrison Ford's character goes through quite an ordeal to get his hands on the golden idol. We see him in action and thus discern quite a bit about his character. Now imagine if the movie instead opened with Indiana Jones telling his students about what a daring and resourceful archaeologist he was. Or worse yet, if a voice-over narrator explained the same to us.

Granted, that's always a problem with voice-over narration, and unless such a storytelling device is handled just right (as occurred in "The Shawshank Redemption"), it comes off as a lazy and far too easy and on the nose technique.

Considering he's been nominated sixteen times for the best original screenplay Oscar during his career (with three wins), one might think Woody Allen certainly knows and abides by this rule. Yet, time and again, he's broken that (to varying degrees of success and failure) and does so again with his latest effort, "Irrational Man."

To make matters worse, he deploys not one but two narrators to help tell the tale of a once idealistic turned alcoholic and depressed professor (Joaquin Phoenix) whose reputation precedes his arrival at a small New Hampshire college where he's to teach philosophy. While he rather quickly attempts but fails at bedding one of his new colleagues (Parker Posey), he tries to keep the advances of one of his students (played by Emma Stone) at arm's length.

She and he serve as the film's two narrators talking far too much about themselves and their view of each other. I supposed that could have been used to gain further insight into the characters and their budding attraction. Or maybe even as a contrasting male-female look at such relationships, or a look back, he-said, she-said examination of what really went down.

Instead of any of that or any other imaginative tactic, however, Allen simply has them inform the viewer of their inner thoughts as well as reiterate what we have already seen, hear or discerned. It does absolutely nothing for the film beyond making Allen seem like he was going for the lazy, easy way out of telling this story.

Sure, the filmmaker's fans and apologists will likely point out the thematic elements revolving around famous philosophers, writers and their theories and how that applies to this tale. Or that Allen is having fun playing off and with the various relationship and crime particulars (the film ultimately heads down that latter path) that have populated his better known flicks over the years.

That's all fine and dandy, and while it's always a pleasure to watch Stone up on the screen (even if her character's motivations and behavior are skewed out of believable proportions), the cinematography is gorgeous (which helps cover for many of the short and abrupt scenes early on), and few play screwed up characters better than Phoenix, the film simply didn't work for me. One of the director's weaker and more easily forgettable efforts, "Irrational Man" barely rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed July 16, 2015 / Posted July 24, 2015

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