Irrational Man: 3 Screenwriting Tips from Woody Allen’s Flop

Woody Allen’s Irrational Man hasn’t gone over terribly well. If the actors were to blame, that would be one thing. In this case, it seems to be the script.

Really godawful screenplays can be educational, but they’re especially enlightening when they’re written by Woody Allen. Here are three takeaways from Irrational Man:

1. Don't have the story narrated by a character who's supposed to be in danger. As noted by Mick LaSalle at SF Gate, the fact that Abe (Juaquine Phoenix) partly narrates the film ruins any suspense when the character faces possibly deadly scenarios.

This criticism isn't entirely valid. It’s like saying that novels written in the first person inherently can’t be suspenseful. Everyone knows the hero makes it out alive, for books and movies, whether or not the hero narrates.

But the criticism can be taken as a reinforcement of Robert McKee’s advice: don’t use a narrator unless absolutely necessary. And even in that case, only use one if it actually adds a new dynamic to the story (see, for example, the genius narration in The Big Lebowski).

2. If a character is supposed to be brilliant, make him brilliant. The long-winded exposition in Irrational Man promises that Abe is a brilliant philosophy professor. And yet, the character never proves himself. This isn’t simply a disappointing element of the film, it demonstrates a shortcoming in the script. Out of all the screenwriters out there, Woody Allen might actually have the ability to create a truly brilliant character. Did Abe disappoint as a character out of sheer laziness on Allen’s part?

3. Clichés are always a fatal flaw, even if you’re Woody Allen. Good luck counting all the clichés in Irrational Man—there are a lot of them. Here are a few: A burnt out philosophy professor (1) who is going through a midlife crises (2); a young, hot student who’s excellent at the piano (3, 4, 5); the professor falls in love with the young student (6) and learns/grows from her (7); seemingly intellectual exposition that really only amounts to banal existentialism (8), etc.

There’s a fine line between using archetypes as narrative device vs. using clichés as a result of a fundamental lack of imagination or originality. Sometimes even the most obvious clichés can work beautifully if they’re used ironically or as a parody. That’s not the case in Irrational Man.

One final takeaway, this one for Woody Allen: People are still weirded out about your taboo relationships with women. Maybe for your next movie, just stick to platonic love. That way, no one will have to think too hard about your inspiration for the story.

Read the screenplay!