Content note: This piece contains spoilers for Irrational Man.
On a sticky 90-degree Sunday afternoon, my mom and I caught a matinee of Irrational Man, the latest Woody Allen movie with Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey.
It should have been a lovely experience. My mom and I have always bonded over our love of the sweeping, quirky romance of Woody Allen movies, despite mutual disgust of his creepy marital decisions. (Decision. Decision. Mia Farrow is a goddess.) I sipped at a Diet Coke, basking in the AC, ready to relax – and I would have, if it weren’t for the sickening, consistent nausea that overcame me and wouldn’t leave for the duration of the film.
Irrational Man is about a morose philosophy professor with a drinking problem (Phoenix), who begins to teach at a university, and through a strange May/December romance with Emma Stone, commits a murder in the name of an existential epiphany. In true Woody Allen form, it is a light-hearted murder. The writing of Emma Stone’s character Jill is what made me queasy.
Jill is a Bambi-eyed, ballet flats-and-A-line-skirt-wearing student who becomes infatuated with Phoenix’s Abe before she meets him, then quickly starts following him around after the tiniest compliment about a paper she wrote. She holds her books in front of her coquettishly, wears white almost exclusively when with him, and calls sex “making love.” In one scene where they are at dinner, she breathes, “I love it when you order for me” before a glass of red was set before her.
A vapid character like this in any other context would have been annoying but not vomit-inducing. It’s not news that Allen writes all characters the way he himself speaks, but it’s as though he gave no thought to how a female her age in her time period would speak or think. When was the last time you referred to sex as “making love” if you weren’t Rachel Dratch or Will Ferrell in a hot tub on SNL? You notice just a lack of true thought behind all of the female characters, from Jill’s mother who half-heartedly told her not to “care for Abe too much in the wrong way,” to Parker Posey’s Rita, a desperate non-housewife looking for escape and orgasms. Despite the fact that she was Abe’s age, she was written as an old woman holding onto any last ties to youth she could find. It physically hurt to see Parker Posey done such an injustice.
Of course, Jill begs and begs Abe to sleep with her, ruining a relationship with an attractive student her own age who she claims to love. Abe denies her over and over, while staring down forlornly at his protruding gut and ill-fitting pants. When she kisses him at a school carnival, a cliché slice of skin is visible under a white eyelet crop top.
I couldn’t stop seeing Woody Allen as Abe, and Jill as any faceless ingénue he lusts after, with no original thoughts in her head unless they came from the wise words of an older man. She was like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl before she grows up to learn how to play the ukulele, like if you gave Natalie Portman in Garden State a lobotomy; the knowledge of tap-dance with an air of illegality. It’s just like he doesn’t care, and it’s annoying. I hate to use the word “mansplaining,” but he writes as though every woman is just waiting for an older, smellier man to come along, fuck her slowly in a cloud of mothballs, then tell her what wine to order with dinner.
In a recent interview with NPR, Allen called his marriage with Soon-Yi Previn “paternal,” and discussed how he allows her to sometimes make decisions “as a gift.” The fact that he has no qualms about continuing to write films about questionable, barely legal relationships, and gives frank interviews about how his stepfather-turned-husband relationship is “paternal,” is a huge fuck you to victims of incest and molestation. Adoption is a true parenthood, and there is no such thing as “real” and “not real” parents when it comes to adoption. It should not be a loophole for gropey old men.
Let’s also not forget Dylan Farrow, his adopted daughter who he allegedly molested for years when she was a small child. Please let’s not forget that.
In the meantime, Woody Allen continues to make money off of writing vanilla pudding female characters who serve no purpose other than to dote and sleep with narcissistic older male intellectuals. Within this context, it’s hard to watch any future films and not view it as a lucrative act of public masturbation. In his films, every lead actor becomes Woody Allen and every actress becomes a victim.
The end of Irrational Man? Abe gets pushed down an elevator shaft, but that’s beside the point. The final scene has Jill walking barefoot down the beach, shoes in hand, with her voiceover waxing poetic about how she at times missed him but was grateful for all she learned. I left the theater annoyed, chewing angrily on a straw.
I may be able to watch Annie Hall without such a gut reaction; I’ll have to see. Part of me hopes that I can, as so many of those films are cloaked in nostalgia and warm, fuzzy feelings for me. I get that art should not be discredited based on the artist, just because Andy Warhol was a manipulative narcissist doesn’t mean his work was any less cutting edge. At the end of the day, you just can’t help the way your body reacts, and mine acted in repulsion. I guess sometimes context is a hard thing to ignore.
One of the concerns may be that this is a rehashing of an old news story, but the truth is, these are the stories that should be retold and revisited over and over. We should reread that powerful open letter Dylan wrote to her father, we should keep reading the stories of Bill Cosby’s victims, and we should not forget the Terry Richardson tampon tea story just because of a President Obama photoshoot.
While we are waiting for the next celebrity predator to surface, we tend to forget or let the previous face and name get buried among the awfulness. We can’t just let one new face replace the last one. We have to keep remembering.