Irrational Man, a film by Woody Allen (2015)

Café Society, a film by Woody Allen (2016)


(Caution: mild spoiler alerts)


“You’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes”, says the space alien in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980), which still, despite its ambitions, falls into the category of Allen’s “earlier, funnier ones.” The wittiness in that film, and other 80s and 90s efforts such as “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan”, and “Hannah and Her Sisters”, omits the Marx Brothers slapstick but retains all the Groucho-esque smart-ass cleverness and wordplay. The works of “Middle-period” Woody Allen were basically his New Yorker bits put to cinematic use.

This shift of focus was a good thing for Allen. The humor of Allen’s “earlier, funnier ones” like Bananas or Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Sex was, by the time of 1976’s Love and Death (his goof on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky), getting somewhat strained and stale. In any event, Allen’s talent in broad, crude, body-based humor was handily eclipsed by that of Mel Brooks. While the giant banana peel scene of Sleeper is hilarious, it pales beside the bean-fueled campfire “sing along” in Blazing Saddles.  Brooks was always the master of sophomore year level laughs: that was not Allen’s forte. So Allen matured, and his movies did as well.

The problem with “mature art” is that it carries a big risk. A characteristic, established style can imperceptibly slip into a rut of unexamined habit, and then into boredom, decay, and irrelevance. Just as the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined sensibility is not worth indulging, and Allen is nothing if not an artist of a “certain sensibility” – urbane, neurotic, upper-middle-class, brainy, angst-ridden, obsessed with romance and elegiac about the pointlessness of it all. Allen’s strengths – witty intelligence and intelligent wit, which are the center of this sensibility – have, in his latest two films, become dire weaknesses. He strives so diligently to make a “smart” point in them that he winds up spinning predictable and vapid plots, and creating ciphers rather than true characters.  It is all but impossible to care about these characters. His signature “late period” gravitas has given way to banality, even fraudulence.

Irrational Man, a drama about a Philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), is mostly fraudulent. Lucas is floundering in the depths of what we are supposed to think is not just major depression but an existential crisis. But it is false from the get-go.

First of all, Professor Lucas’s classroom quips are at best boilerplate, at worst sheer misrepresentation. His first lecture, given to the topic of Kant’s stringent position on lying, is a complete caricature (no, the categorical imperative does not say you have to tell the Gestapo agent that a Jew is hiding in your attic: in fact, you are obliged to do everything in your power short of telling a lie). Lucas’s throwaway remarks about Kierkegaard completely evade the passionate commitment to being a Christian that is central to his philosophical project, and indeed to his entire ironic life. He quips that continental philosophy is superior to analytic philosophy because while the latter spills ink on the question “What is meaning?” the former addresses the weightier issue of “What is meaningful for me?” There are a few grains of truth to this, but only a few: haven’t you ever heard of Husserl (whose name he mispronounces) or Wittgenstein? I realize these gripes seem pedantic, and as philosophy is a core part of my life it is clear that I have a horse in this race. But popularizers of a discipline have the responsibility not only to get thinkers right and make thoughts clear, but also to display them both in their full complexity. I wonder if it is no accident that Allen swiped his title from William Barrett’s Irrational Man, which introduced existentialism to the educated readership of Partisan Review and Commentary in the 1950s. The book was not exactly bad, but relentlessly mediocre. In this, it fares somewhat better than the eponymous film.

Second, this professorial main character is an annoying, self-indulgent sonofabitch. He drinks Scotch incessantly from a flask while strolling the campus quads of Braylin College between classes (reality check: that would get him instantly fired from pretty much any US college or university, and rightly so). He embarks on a casual affair with Rita (Parker Posey), a scientist colleague, while resisting the advances of Jill (Emma Stone), a student who is utterly smitten with what she takes to be his moody charm. Lucas resists temptation for a while, more because he is reticent to incur any professional or emotional damage to himself, then embarks on a tempestuous affair with Jill, with neither he nor Allen recognizing the sheer abuse of ethics and power this entails. It’s just one of those things, one of those bells that now and then rings.

Lucas is severely depressed, true. Depressed people do unreasonable and self-destructive things, which is cause for compassion rather than censure. It’s wrong to disdain the mentally ill, because they have been clobbered by ill circumstance and brain chemistry. But, usually, good filmmakers should be able to tease out a modicum of empathic identification and human sympathy from their audience. Thus Silver Linings Playbook, which chronicled a mentally ill couple, might have been a flawed film, but its troubled lead characters were complex and three dimensional, hence people to care about. Likewise with the current television dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: its heroine, Rebecca, a real-estate lawyer just as depressed and unhinged as Abe Lucas, occasions both facepalms and genuine warmth from viewers. You care about Rebecca and root for her even as you want to shake her out of her compulsion to make horrible romantic and existential choices. Allen fails to provide even a hint of genuine humanity in his philosophical protagonist. When the tragic end comes, it’s hard to feel even remotely shaken by it. At least I can’t.

This “tragic” end is a result of Abe’s decision to act rather than just think, and thus resolve his “existential crisis”. He overhears conversation in a diner where a prominent judge is revealed to be a corrupt and vindictive monster. He decides then and there, Raskolnikov style, to rid the world of this beast by commiting a perfect and undetectable murder. Like Raskolnikov, the murder is detected, and by someone who he least expects to figure things out. Unlike Raskolnikov, he undergoes no Kierkegaardian conversion and redemption. After “acting” he becomes focused and less morose. While he chokes when the jig is up, prior to this he is one-dimensional in a way that Raskolnikov isn’t. If Lucas is being existentially decisive for a change, it’s a decisiveness I find it hard to endorse: he merely goes from an empty narcissistic boor to an empty narcissistic murderer. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would scowl and laugh at Lucas. Abe thinks he has made himself into an Übermensch, but he is not even ein letzter Mensch, a “last man.” The “last man” takes comfort in comfort; Lucas takes comfort in a self-image radically at odds with his self-congratulatory heroism-on-the-cheap. He remains an empty shell.

The dramatis personae of Irrational Man are like caricatures of the caricatures of the upper-middle-class intellectual urbanites in New Yorker cartoons, without the good natured self-mockery. Most “intellectuals” I know are pretty down-to-earth types – which is important in these days when ersatz populists are fond of smearing all intellectuals as smug coastal snobs. (A form of reverse snobbery which is, after all, still snobbery.) Even the smug and snobbish intellectuals I have encountered are nowhere near as self-absorbed and banal as the genteel university crew inhabiting Irrational Man. I once was informed by a grad school colleague that two eminent department members were screaming in the hall at each other about Leibniz. Nothing like that would have happened in Allen’s unreal, soporific academic world. Apart from an infantile episode, where Lucas plays a  game of Russian roulette in front of students to make a pseudo-Kierkegaardian point about the need for “passionate choice” in the face of chance and absurdity, Allen’s academics are a pretty somnolent bunch. As is Lucas. Abe complains about the book he is writing, carping “who needs another book about Heidegger and Fascism?” (Yawn.) Well, fine. Don’t write the fucking thing. Write something else. Or maybe you could try to show the relevance of this topic to the present order. Certainly not hard to do, and probably worthwhile. Either put up or shut up. See a therapist. And take your Kierkegaard seriously, for a change.

Allen’s latest film, Café Society, set in the 1930s, is filled to the brim with the same kind of empty haute bourgeois professional stereotypes. To its faint credit, it is also populated by the lower middle class Bronx parents of its protagonist, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who goes to California to work for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell) in the movie industry. It also depicts the underworld gangster subculture of his older racketeer brother Ben. But they too are banal – stereotyped Jews and stereotyped goons, who never utter a phrase you couldn’t predict well in advance. This sort of filmic cartooning worked well in Take the Money and Run or Annie Hall, because they were going for laughs rather than wan smiles. It doesn’t work here. When it’s not banal, it is even slightly offensive.

The plot of Café Society is ostensibly romance, and how we move on with a tinge of regret when things fall apart, not exactly sad but not exactly winsomely comfortable either. Working at the studio for his uncle, Bobby meets Vonnie (Kirsten Stewart, whose emotional range as an actor is, happily, expanding), and immediately falls in love. Vonnie is having a love affair with Phil (at least 30 years her senior), who cannot bring himself to divorce his wife. They break up. Vonnie and Bobby get together, Phil changes his mind. Vonnie breaks up with Bobby and marries Phil. Bobby moves back to New York and manages a club with his brother Ben the mobster. He marries Veronica Hayes (Blake Lively) and has a family. He meets Vonnie again, they flirt, they don’t get together, they are wistful towards each other, yadda yadda yadda. The end.

By which I mean to say: you have witnessed this plot many, many times before. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy (kind of) gets the girl back, lather, rinse, repeat. Yet archetypal plots such as this need not be banal – in fact, they usually aren’t. Shakespeare used pre-fab plots to great effect, and he is only the most obvious example. But Shakespeare (and Joyce, and Fitzgerald, and Melville, and so on) knew that to avoid banality the archetypal plot, and the archetypal heroes, heroines, and villains, need to be varied, twisted, not only made new but made strange. So when The Seven Samurai morphs into The Magnificent Seven, or Sondheim moves Romeo and Juliet to the far Upper East Side, you catch both the sameness and the difference. You learn something new. There is nothing in Café Society that knocks you off balance. Same old, same old. Same old Woody.

Plus, there is something unsettling about the “same old Woody” these days – the preoccupation bordering on obsession with the “much older man/much younger woman” scenario. I realize that artists with sketchy characters can make great and moving and ennobling works of art. It pays to know that Picasso was miserable to women, but that “Guernica” and “Portrait of Dora Maar” are not just beautiful but edifying. His art is better than he was. You could say the same about Hitchcock, who was a misogynistic lout if there ever was one, yet a master of the suspenseful thriller, who portrayed women as something other than props for men. But Allen’s obsession cuts closer to the bone, and in light of his personal romantic history, seems more than a bit creepy. There is not the slightest suggestion in Café Society that uncle Phil ought to be a bit more reluctant to break up his marriage for the sake of his love for Vonnie, not merely because it will ruin his wife’s life, but because he is in his 50s and Vonnie is in her 20s, and that it might ruin Vonnie’s life as well, and that his eros seems motivated more by a fantasy of romance than the real thing. This (among much else) contributes to the hollowness of Allen’s current artistic vision: you can’t view his art the same way you might be able to view that of Picasso or Hitchcock. The problem is not with his personal life or obsessions, but with the obsessions of his art. They are disconcerting in their lack of concern about sexual and romantic domination and the abuse of power and privilege.

(There was an inkling of this problem in his middle period masterpiece, Manhattan, where Allen’s Isaac Davis gloats over his 17 year old girlfriend (whom he loses, and wants back, unsuccessfully). There is no awareness on Isaac’s part, or that of the film itself, that this might be a bit, say, morally awkward and exploitative. He dumps her for a woman closer to him in age and background, misses her, and wants her to return to him, for his own sake rather than hers. Looking backwards from Irrational Man and Café Society, it appears that faint unease at Manhattan was justified.)

I am not blanket-accusing Allen’s art, or Allen himself, of moral indifference or squalor. Quite the contrary. For instance Crimes and Misdemeanors was a powerful film that successfully raised the question “Why be good if you can get away with murder?” — the same question that preoccupied Plato in Republic Bk. 2 when he spun the Myth of Gyges, and certainly echoed in Irrational Man. And the answers of that film were not pat and formulaic either: the question isn’t quite resolved at the film’s denouement. What has changed for Allen has been the ways in which these questions of human existence, of life, of choice, are raised and parsed through. Instead of portraying the existential dilemmas of three-dimensional fictional persons, Allen has presented us with a parade of banal characters saying banal things and coming to banal ends. What we have, as a result, is not so much the banality of evil, but the banality of everything. The banality of banality.

The aliens were right. Allen should have stuck to writing funnier jokes.