Paranoia, the ‘struggling artist’, adultery, death and the thought of committing the perfect crime are all commonplace within the creative ground that writer and director Woody Allen has explored throughout his extensive filmography. Keeping up his remarkable one-film-per-year tally, his latest project ‘Irrational Man’ revisits past themes through philosophy professor protagonist Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who experiences an existential crisis. With rumours of his questionable lifestyle circulating round the college campus and a hip flask of ‘vintage’ malt in his back pocket, he befriends his straight A student Jill (Emma Stone) who is in awe of his knowledge and intelligence, much to the dismay of her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley). When eavesdropping on a conversation in a diner, Abe sees an opportunity to give his life a sense of meaning, but at what costs?
The mystery plot is Hitchcockian in its absurdity, and Abe Lucas is used as the ideal vehicle to drop philosophical quotes from Kant and Dostoyevsky into the script, as well as delivering Allenisms such as ‘I couldn’t remember the reason for living, and when I did it wasn’t convincing’. It is gluttonous, self-indulgent filmmaking from the director who refuses to change his style, and Khondji’s neat cinematography is accompanied by a typically jazz-infused soundtrack that frequently repeats. No matter how familiar it may feel, it is comical, clever and wickedly dark. Phoenix plays the lead unlike the past few central characters in Woody’s films in that he is not a copycat version of his creator. His performance is enjoyable and works well with Allen’s most recent muse Emma Stone, who is a natural at handling his delectable dialogue. Rising British actor Jamie Blackley also impresses and is one to watch out for, but his role here is a little underused.
‘Irrational Man’ is the most fun I’ve had with a Woody Allen film since the turn of the decade, and though he is guilty of trudging through his usual narrative motions, he is doing so very entertainingly with flair and his trademark wit. Phoenix and Stone are a joy to watch as they revel in the brilliantly farcical material, both well suited to his ad lib approach. A key scene unfolds at an amusement park when characters wander into a house of mirrors, a method often implemented in cinema to convey a sense of trickery or bemusement, and previously by Allen himself. While the tricks up his sleeve, on which he wears his many influences, are tried and tested, sometimes the old ones are the best.
Set in the not so distant future, ‘Her’ blends science fiction with romantic-comedy and holds a mirror up to the possibilities of mobile technology. Screwball director Spike Jonze explores themes of love, friendship and artificial intelligence in utopian Los Angeles. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a thirty-something divorcee who makes a living penning love letters for those with an inability to express their feelings, despite lacking confidence with women face-to-face himself. Lonely and raw from his separation from soul mate Catherine (Rooney Mara), he invests in an advanced operating system, who calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) for companionship and to compartmentalise his working and social calendar. As the OS expands its capabilities, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha develops, asking questions of modern-day romance and its requirements, be it technical or otherwise.
Despite being full of ideas and imagination, I struggled to connect with the central character, and felt slightly patronised and preached upon by the heavy topics raised. The ‘looks or personality’ quandary comes into play in an unorthodox manner as although Samantha has no physical presence, essentially ‘living in a computer’ as she puts it, she does have a personality and later has the mood swings and emotions that come with the ups and downs of a relationship. Without giving too much away, there’s a section where Samantha does arrange for a body to take on her persona and this presents an oddly intriguing threesome dynamic. It reminded me a lot of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series which also predicted where technological enhancements would take us, but his effort was more effective and thought provoking due to its darker satirical approach.
I admired the ambition, and the film definitely looks the part, the idyllic location serving as a pleasant and interesting backdrop to Theodore’s story. However nice the aesthetics are, the problem lies in the unnatural conversations with Samantha which were cringe worthy at times, the attempts at humour, for me, missing the mark. This could be down to the fact that Johansson was brought into the project late on. Her voiceover was added in place of the unknown original which had been recorded in sync with Phoenix’s lines. In fairness, the recasting in some respects of Scarlett Johansson was a shrewd move. Because of her iconic good looks, her voice is easy to recognise and identify with, and this helps but I didn’t buy into the bond at all. It all still felt very naff and manufactured.
Joaquin Phoenix is no stranger to a complex lead role, so seemed an inspired choice to take on the introvert, Twombly. Unfortunately, he is outshone by his co-stars, even his computerised girlfriend. Rooney Mara is very impressive once again, in a similar role to her Social Network turn, but this time more assured. I could’ve done with seeing more of her character who represents the grounding reality in a world of dreamy ideals, though she steals the moments she appears in. The stand-out performance is Amy Adams as Theodore’s best friend, Amy. They relate through their desire to express themselves creatively, Theodore through his writing and Amy through documentary filmmaking. They are there for each other through their troubles, and the natural friendship plays out very fluidly.
‘Her’ has no shortage of invention but the outcome has mixed results. The slick cinematography works well with the subject matter, as does the soundtrack but it is let down by its feeble cracks at rom-com humour and sentiment. This creates an incoherent narrative and the film doesn’t appear to know quite what it wants to be, though it has no doubt of its own intelligence. If it had focussed on being an investigative sci-fi flick, I think there’s room for a more in-depth study and more challenging material for the experienced cast to tackle, thus giving itself the opportunity to fulfil its potential.