REVIEW: 'Irrational Man'


I can honestly say that Woody Allen’s new film is the first one I’ve seen where the main character’s beer belly is a metaphor for the director’s career. Somehow, I couldn’t stop staring at the paunch sported by Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man; there it is, sticking out as Phoenix’s character Abe Lucas wanders through the small college campus where his character has been brought on to teach philosophy. There it is again, wobbling as Lucas conducts affairs with faculty and students alike.

Maybe it's just that watching Phoenix play a middle-aged guy makes me feel old. But the more I think about Lucas and his depression-induced stomach, the more it represents where Allen is as a writer/director – his films aren’t suffering, but they’re not terribly healthy, either. Amid the recent late-career Allen high points of Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine are ho-hum entries like To Rome With Love or borderline annoying films like last year’s Magic in the Moonlight. For its part, Irrational Man seems set to join the other “meh” Allen films of late. It has one or two good ideas, but unlike a paper written by Emma Stone’s character, it doesn’t make the case for itself very clearly or with good reasoning.

Irrational Man opens on Abe Lucas’ arrival at Braylin College, a small university somewhere in New England. Lucas is a professor with a reputation: he’s known amongst academics for being a radical thinker, a world traveler with a passion for experiencing everything the world has to offer, who believes that only direct action produces real change. However, Lucas’ worldview has been dulled by the tragedy and hypocrisy he’s witnessed, and he no longer feels the urge to write, love or live – though he doesn’t even seem motivated enough to commit suicide.

In short, Lucas is the perfect object of affection for the whimsical, seemingly intelligent women that Allen has written into his films of late. “Seemingly” is emphasized there for a reason, because while music student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) is bracingly sharp on the surface, her instincts and inner life seem to implode when the story pushes her into a relationship with Lucas. In a restaurant scene, she purrs awkward lines like “I love it when you order for me,” surrendering completely to Lucas’ odd mix of maverick ideas and vulnerability. It creates a persistent “ick” factor that works against some of the laughs and drama Allen is aiming for.

What makes this more implausible is the overly wordy dialogue that Allen is renowned for. The characters spout whole paragraphs of script that analyze each other’s weaknesses, both in conversation and in the nearly constant voiceovers by Stone’s and Phoenix’s characters. It’s actually irritating at points just how well the character are able to articulate what they’re thinking about everything.

Parkey Posey as Rita, one of the Brayline faculty who falls for Abe (Phoenix)

Of course, you sort of sign up for that kind of thing in a Woody Allen film, and thankfully, characters repeatedly call themselves out on their own “philosophical bullsh*t”. Nevertheless, it’s all so thoroughly unrealistic that Irrational Man feels like it belongs in the same kind of odd magic realism world where Midnight in Paris took place – not fantasy or reality, but a hazy mix of the two, and this time, it's not nearly as fun as the 2011 film.

That odd fantasy vibe was probably why I legitimately didn’t expect the twist part-way through, where a random minor character is killed, setting off a chain of events that simultaneously drags Lucas out of his funk and threatens his efforts to finish writing his latest book. It’s a heavy dose of dark comedy that comes out of nowhere, and it briefly gives the film some spark that I really appreciated.

Naturally, the murder setup is a strong reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, where two scholars kill a man as an academic exercise to test a philosophical theory, and we become wrapped up in how well they conceal the act before being caught. By contrast, Irrational Man plays its version of the scenario for laughs, though it’s not a joke that gets any funnier. Oddly, while the film lets its characters blather on about pretty much anything, nothing they say makes the surprise murder mystery plot reveal much we haven’t seen or heard before in better stories.

Perhaps the saddest part of Irrational Man is how easy it is to pull an Abe Lucas and despair about how purposeless it all seems: Woody Allen seems set on continuing his relentless one-film-per-year schedule, throwing film after film our way, apparently hoping a few of them will be gems. He doesn’t read reviews, doesn’t care about awards, and refuses to spend more time refining his scripts. He’ll continue working with his usual crew of rotating muses (Stone being the most recent) and shooting pretty visuals with the help of Darius Khondji. Even the typeface in the opening titles doesn’t appear to change that often between movies.

Essentially, Allen has one of the most uncomplicated outlooks about the cinema – but it can be tempting to forget he’s still making movies. I find myself shuffling the films of his I’ve seen around in my head, not reacting to them so much as ranking them. And knowing how energetic Allen’s work can be when he makes a good one, I can see why Phoenix’s character carries a hip flask of single malt around with him. Few things are as dispiriting as when a smart guy (either Allen or one of his characters) loses his mojo.

Irrational Man gets two stars out of four.

Two Stars

Have you seen the new Woody Allen film? What did you think? Were you wooed by Phoenix and Stone’s performances? Does Allen have any fresh stories left to tell? Or are you getting worn out by his constant stream of releases? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!