Woody Allen has directed roughly a film a year for the past half-century. It’s an output that privileges the working itself over the artwork that the working produces. Woody Allen makes movies like the rest of us do our own jobs – he gets up every day and goes to work. He has good days and bad days, good years and bad years. The quality of his films fluctuate, but the work is the same year in and year out.
At this point in his career, it feels wrong to judge Allen’s films as singular events. Like playing a game of cards with my grandfather, this current game isn’t as important as the fact that we always play a game of cards every time we see each other. It’s the ritual and the relationship it maintains that matters.
In his latest film, Irrational Man, Allen picks up many of his favorite themes and motifs—morality or the lack thereof, fate and luck, love and death, nostalgia and realism, religion and atheism—shuffles them around only as much as is necessary to make a new film, and deals the cards for a new hand in the old game. You know how the game is going to go the whole time you’re watching it, but you don’t know exactly who is going to win and who is going to lose this time. As always, Allen plays both sides of the table, and he plays them fairly. What happens, happens, and the meaning that is there is the meaning you make.
I enjoyed Irrational Man. It’s far from my favorite Woody Allen movie—you’ll have to cue up The Purple Rose of Cairo for that—but it’s far from my least favorite as well (and with respect to Allen, I’ll leave the title of that one out of this review). It’s another of his blackly-comic, philosophical, murder mysteries, and he makes many of the same plays he’s made in those kinds of movies in the past. There is light and sight imagery, an older man/younger woman relationship at the center of the film, and sidetracks in order to openly discuss ethics and justice in a world that, at times, seems ruled by chance. There is frequent, wholly unnecessary voice-over narration that makes it feel like the movie thinks the audience is stupid. The first act is mind-numbingly boring, but it is putting the audience in the place of its one-step-above-catatonic protagonist, so maybe that’s okay. The soundtrack is comprised of great jazz tunes. It’s a “Woody Allen movie,” and at this point in his career, he plays the hits.
The fun that Allen has with all these things with what stands out to me at this point in his career. A movie like Crimes and Misdemeanors deals with many of the same topics, but Irrational Man is much more relaxed about the whole affair. It’s as if Allen is saying, “Sure, these questions about morality and justice are a life and death matter on the individual level, but broadly, there’s not much we can do about them, so we might as well laugh.” There’s a fatalism in that and yet another instance of the kind of privilege that makes some of his movies hard to swallow. Only a wealthy, powerful, and in the case of Allen’s movies, white person can afford to through up his or her hands at the injustice of life and mug for the camera at the same time. On the other hand, wealthy, powerful, and in the case of Allen’s movies, white people are people too, the God that Allen begrudgingly can’t believe in loves them too, and they too have to makes sense of the life they are living. What else is a wealthy, powerful, white person to do? You got me.
I’m joking, of course, and so is Allen. It’s telling in this late stage of Allen’s career that the “idealistic” characters in his movies most frequently come out on top. His fatalism doesn’t necessarily win, and his characters that tire of trying to save the world aren’t the ones we’re supposed to admire, suggesting, I think, that trying to save the world is worthwhile even if we fail. In any case, it’s a better option that resigning ourselves to the apparent meaninglessness. It might even be that Allen is suggesting that continuing on in full view of the meaninglessness is where the real meaning lies. I’m not yet ready to make the argument that he’s making that argument, but his movie-a-year-since-1966-regardless-of-perceived-quality movie-making method sure suggests a personal philosophy in line with that beleaguered optimist kind of thinking. At least I hope that’s what he believes, because when his career finally, sadly ends, that’s what I’ll take away from his all his movies taken as one.