Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone are a knockout pair of actors and Woody Allen is prolific enough (steadily churning out a movie a year) that he can’t help but hit the mark occasionally (see Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine for recent examples). Irrational Man has a chance at greatness, but does it fall into the increasingly large pile of Allen’s many misses?
Taking place at a small East coast liberal arts college, Irrational Man explores another in a long line of inappropriate romances – this time between ingenue Jill (Stone) and washed up professor Abe (Phoenix). Stone and Phoenix are well-cast as a bright student and brooding intellectual respectively, but Allen’s wordy script often comes off as overly stage-y and unnecessarily full of 30-point scrabble words. The movie strives for a heady blend of screwball comedy and high-minded philosophizing but has a tricky time balancing tones, providing neither ample laughs nor genuine tension to be considered a successful comedy or thriller.
Some intrusive voiceover (usually a bad sign) from the two leads sets up the story. Jill is comfortably upper middle class and headed for an overseas post-grad stint with her doting boyfriend Roy, just as soon as she finishes her undergrad at Braylin. Her life is one of routine and steady achievement, and the new philosophy professor Abe represents an exciting new avenue to shake her out of her slump.
For his part, Abe is a world weary alcoholic, a former idealist whose ambitions have curdled to deep despair. For him, Braylin represents another group of students who want to change the world but will only succeed in mediocrity and upholding the depressing status quo. Phoenix again brings a stunning physicality, with his distended beer belly and slumped shoulders as signs of a man who’s accepted his defeat at the hands of an uncaring world.
Jill and Abe strike it off, forming a fast friendship that Abe is keen to keep platonic. Alternatively, he starts an affair with the free-spirited Rita (Parker Posey), but finds himself unable to perform in bed. Riddled with writer’s block and feeling his manhood slip away, a chance encounter at a diner fills Abe with new purpose and draws him out of his existential slump. His goal – to kill an unfair judge and commit the perfect crime.
Irrational Man straddles the line between more serious Allen fare and outright farce, without ever committing to either. The leads are good but their budding romance (upon which the film hinges) never really takes off. There’s a lack of naturalism and the constant referencing of Nietzsche and Kant and numerous other great minds doesn’t really bring it back down to earth. There’s some commentary on small town gossip and the lives of others, and while often gently funny it lacks the bite of serious satire.
Allen’s late-period tendencies all seem to be present as well, from unimaginative framing and a totally bland soundtrack, to out-of-sync audio and many takes that look like they were the first one. There’s something to be said for the man’s unwavering consistency to make a movie a year for decades on end, but it means that quality control often falls by the wayside.
When a pivotal crime occurs it seems as though the movie might gain some forward thrust as the screws tighten around the morally ambiguous Abe. There is some tension to mine but much of it slips away amid elliptical conversations in a movie that feels long at 90 minutes. A lot of walking and talking occurs, seemingly the favourite past time of everyone in this small college town. Often it’s like the worst parts of first-year theorizing, with characters endlessly espousing their world views to one another (though occasional insights peeks through, like the undergrads’ false nihilism that melts away in the face of real danger, or the teachers’ tendencies to be just as scurrilous as their students).
At times it feels like Allen is exorcising his own demons when Abe waxes philosophical on justifiable crimes and how the world would be a better place without certain people in it. That may be reading too far into the movie, but there is a somewhat rotten core at its centre that faintly favours intellectual elitism in lieu of cronyism (obviously bad) or even the mundanity of a regular existence (not necessarily bad).
The ending refutes this reading to a certain extant, finding sudden moral high ground and enacting righteous retribution. And while it muddles the message it does prove to be the sharpest and funniest part about the whole thing. More of that unfiltered nastiness could have made this into an enjoyably dark film instead of the trifle that it is.
Mannered and self-conscious, Irrational Man is a fans-only affair that reinforces Allen’s worst tendencies without allowing for needed evolution. See it for some solid performances and mild humour, but don’t expect anything more than a tired substitute for the occasional flashes of brilliance that Allen is certainly capable of.
Irrational Man (2015)
Director: Woody Allen
Runtime: 96 minutes