Irrational Man

Review by David Ehrlich @davidehrlich

Directed by

Woody Allen

Starring

Emma Stone Joaquin Phoenix Parker Posey

Anticipation.

Allen remains as reliable as migrating geese in delivering his annual missive.

Enjoyment.

No great shakes, but a more tricksy and philosophically rich drama than expected.

In Retrospect.

Falls somewhere into the nebulous void between major and minor Woody.

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone go back to school in this charmingly off-kilter comedy-thriller from Woody Allen.

A dark comedy of the conscience, Irrational Man is effectively Woody Allen’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, though – for alcoholic and recently impotent philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) – the process of groove recovery isn’t quite so innocent as flying to Jamaica for a fling with a local hunk named Winston Shakespeare. For Abe, whose potbelly alone is heftier than several of Allen’s recent films, reinvigorating his life might require ending someone else’s.

For some time now, it’s been a self-evident truth that Woody Allen movies have come to exist only in relationship to one another, as the characters with which he populates them exist only in relation to himself. This isn’t a new phenomenon, and no one familiar with the inertia of the iconoclast’s working life would ever expect his forty-sixth feature to change that. It doesn’t. In its best moments, Irrational Man has the uncharacteristic temerity to question itself, or at least the chutzpah to convince you that it might.

There’s something very wrong with Abe, with Phoenix inhabiting the role like the lovechild Doc Sportello and Whit Stillman probably never even tried to have. Hired to teach a summer course at a prominent Rhode Island university, he rolls onto campus in the throes of an existential crisis, a flaskful of scotch in his jacket and a voiceover paraphrasing Kant in his head (“Man is confronted with questions he cannot answer or dismiss…”).

He stands up like he’s falling over, and the first thing that almost every person says to him is, “Are you okay?” He is not okay. Worse, he’s impotent. Jill Pollard (Emma Stone, ebullient as ever), the tall girl with the big eyes in the second row, is determined to remind Abe that life is worth thinking about and taking seriously.

For a time, it seems like Irrational Man is playing into the hands of Allen’s most reflexive detractors, and that Jill’s youthful pizzazz will stiffen Abe right back into shape. Living in constant fear of her own ordinariness, Jill can’t help but be attracted to Abe’s sense of residual worldliness. When Abe glumly confesses to her that he’d be too far gone to appreciate a new woman in his life, Jill perceives it as a personal challenge.

That’s when things take a turn. While at a diner one afternoon, Abe and Jill overhear a woman crying to her friends about the crooked judge who’s going to deprive her of custody to her kids. For Jill, it’s one hell of a sob story. For Abe, it’s his Strangers on a Train eureka moment. Suddenly, his life has renewed purpose: he’s going to kill that judge, and he’s going to feel great about it. As the summer winds on, all Jill can think about is Abe, and all Abe can think about is murder.

Irrational Man can be seen as one of Allen’s cleverest films, and it’s certainly among his most focused, but even the satisfying tidiness of its ending contributes to the sense that we’re watching a simulation rather than a story. Still, there’s an impish pleasure in seeing what Jill has learned by the end of the semester, and in how she’s learned it. The film’s cold, lingering irony is that Abe Lucas might just be the best teacher she’ll ever have.

Published 10 Sep 2015

Tags: Emma Stone Woody Allen

Anticipation.

Allen remains as reliable as migrating geese in delivering his annual missive.

Enjoyment.

No great shakes, but a more tricksy and philosophically rich drama than expected.

In Retrospect.

Falls somewhere into the nebulous void between major and minor Woody.

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