The trailer for Woody Allen’s new film, Irrational Man, sells it as a light entertainment where college professor Joaquin Phoenix finds himself reinvigorated by young student Emma Stone, so imagine our surprise at Cannes today when the film premiered and revealed one extra, essential wrinkle: It’s yet another Allen film preoccupied by getting away with murder. Phoenix’s potbellied prof finds himself consumed with the notion of committing the perfect crime against an obstinate judge whose rub-out might actually make the world a better place, and this theme of ordinary, murderous men circumventing justice is one that Allen has returned to so often — in films like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream — that a journalist at today’s Cannes press conference straight-up asked Allen, “Have you ever considered murdering someone?”
Allen peered at the man for a beat, then replied, “Even as you speak!”
For many of his critics, Allen’s penchant for characters who get away with committing crimes will prove worthy of further analysis. Some pundits, who already consider Irrational Man a thin update of Match Point — and have tired of another of Allen’s tropes, where he pairs a beautiful young ingenue with an over-the-hill leading man — are suggesting that Allen has too long gotten away with recycling the same themes; when the filmmaker said today that he wishes he could shoot his movies all over again, Variety critic Guy Lodge tweeted, “Sometimes it feels like he does.” Other observers will surely note the charges of abuse that have long dogged Allen and have hardly impacted his one-film-a-year shooting schedule. Is Allen subconsciously tipping his hand here, suggesting that he himself may be the one who’s gotten away with it?
Today at his press conference, Allen ventured that his films are more motivated by getting away from something: Namely, by making movies so often, he can distract himself from his advancing age and preoccupation with death. “We’re all gonna end up in the same bad position sooner or later,” Allen said. “The only way out of it, as an artist, is to try to come up with something where you can explain to people why life is worth living.”
As he continued, that notion became less life-affirming. “Now, you can’t really do that without conning them, because in the end [life] has no meaning. You’re living in a random universe and living a meaningless life. Everything you create in life will vanish … my conclusion is that the only possible way you can beat it a little bit is through distraction.”
For Allen, then, his yearly shoots are the best form of distraction, especially when he spends that on-set time with actors like Phoenix, Stone, and Parker Posey, who play Irrational Man’s three leads. “What distracts me is, ‘Oh, I hope Emma and Parker do well in this scene tonight,’ like it really means something in life,” said Allen, adding mordantly, “It doesn’t. If I don’t solve [the scene], it’ll be a bad movie, but I won’t die.”
But there are still limits to his pursuit of distraction. Allen recently inked a deal with Amazon to create a TV series of his choosing; months later, he’s broken no ground on it, and the idea tortures him. “To do six half-hours, I thought it would be a cinch. It’s not,” he said. “It was a catastrophic mistake for me. I never should have gotten into it.” Will that admission cause Amazon executives to chuckle or blanch? Somehow, we expect Allen will get away with it.