This week I came down pretty hard on an Italian moral drama called The Dinner, which is now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The movie “characterize[s] its protagonists in such basic terms (and [director Ivano] De Matteo maintains such a ridiculously genteel tone),” I wrote, “that it feels less like a drama than like a hypothetical moral dilemma that friends might hash out around the dinner table.” I suspect I wouldn’t have been so disappointed with The Dinner if the early passages didn’t remind me so much of the late, great French New Wave director Claude Chabrol (Just Before Nightfall, The Ceremony, The Flower of Evil), who specialized in genteel, Hitchcock-inspired dramas about moral dilemmas, typically involving murder. Chabrol, who died in 2010, developed a light, refreshing style in the last couple decades of his career, which made his films as entertaining to watch as they were satisfying to digest. By contrast The Dinner is ponderous and literal-minded—it feels as if De Matteo is doing all the thinking for you.
Woody Allen’s current release, Irrational Man, feels more like Chabrol. It’s a breezy, superficial film about murder and philosophical angst—one watches it as though engaged in a chat with a cranky old acquaintance. The film oozes familiarity, albeit not always for the better. Allen draws shamelessly on a couple of Alfred Hitchcock classics, Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train, not to mention his own Match Point. The depressive philosophy professor played by Joaquin Phoenix feels like a character that Allen might have played for laughs in one of his early comedies, while the undergraduate who becomes enamored with him (Emma Stone) at the same time as he plots a murder feels like a modern-day version of Teresa Wright’s Charlie from Doubt. (Further heightening the sense of familiarity, Allen plays the same track by the Ramsey Lewis Trio throughout the film.) Little in the story comes off as a surprise, since the characters talk about nearly everything they do before actually doing it. And yet that feels appropriate enough, as Irrational Man is all about the seductive power of ideas, namely the idea of pulling off a “perfect” crime.
By plotting the murder of a stranger, Phoenix’s Abe manages to pull himself out of a crippling depression. Allen presents this premise without any overt editorializing—in fact he often defers to Abe’s perspective, allowing him to narrate certain passages (which he does in the effete, literate manner of the narrator in Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona). This has the effect of drawing viewers into Abe’s immoral worldview and making them complicit in his plot. It’s the sort of trick that Chabrol liked to pull, making his protagonists sympathetic despite showing them to be capable of horrible crimes. One not only wants Abe to succeed in his plot—one doesn’t even think of him as guilty, since one becomes privy to all his justifications for his deeds.
The movie might feel like dinner-table fodder if not for Phoenix’s complicated lead performance. For the last several years the actor has come to specialize in playing self-destructive individuals (I’m Still Here, The Master, The Immigrant), bringing a spontaneous energy to characters who are burning themselves out. The early passages of Irrational Man, which find Abe so depressed that he’s practically at the point of suicide, are well-suited to Phoenix’s gifts. Permanently slouched and delivering his lines as if talking to himself, Phoenix renders Abe a distinctive physical presence. Allen might want viewers to sympathize with the character, but there’s something about the performance that keeps viewers at arm’s length. Phoenix plays up Abe’s narcissism, emotional pain, and fascination with death—one’s never sure just how to feel about him, even as the smooth storytelling allows one to get wrapped up in his actions.