Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey
Well the word on the street about Irrational Man had me worried that I would have to write my first unfavorable review for a Woody Allen film. Well, fear not! Irrational Man is a moody, dark, twisted little film that proves engaging to even the most discerning Woody Allen-hater, and I can say this because I brought one to the theater with me!
Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a philosophy professor who has lost his passion for life. Not in the pondering death and its inevitableness kind of way, but in the hey, it’s a college party, I’ll try a little one-man Russian roulette, kind of way. Abe’s past reputation as a great mind in his field quickly captures the attention of one of his young students, Jill, played by Emma Stone. Their relationship “walks the line” of acceptability between teacher and student as Jill becomes more and more infatuated with the brooding Abe. During one of their supposedly innocuous dates, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation from a woman at a nearby table that sends the film spinning in a very different direction leading Abe to ponder taking an action that just may rekindle his spirit and reinvigorate his purpose in life. While I will not reveal exactly what that “action” is, I will say that it is involved in what could be considered a plot twist, something rarely found in a Woody Allen film.
Irrational Man is Allen’s darkest film since the sensational Match Point in 2005, and while it’s not quite at the caliber of that film, Irrational Man does borrow an idea or two from it. In fact, Irrational Man could be considered the fourth volume of an informal morality tetralogy after Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream. Allen has explored morality as a function of many of his films, but these four further his discussion beyond a humble motif. For this film Allen paints Abe as an existential philosopher who spouts Kierkegaard, Kant, and of course Dostoevsky, but seems virtually void of any desire to utilize free will in the search for meaning. It is not until Abe meets Jill that he suffers a truly Kierkegaardian experience forcing him to realize his anxiety truly is the dizziness of freedom. The dynamic between Abe and Jill is highly responsible for the film’s success. Phoenix’s grumpy genius is a perfect foil to Stone’s bubbly inquisitiveness. These two actors share a brilliant and intense scene late in the film that is as powerful a scene between two characters as any Allen has ever written.
Contrary to the way this film is portrayed in the trailer, Irrational Man is not a romantic romp. I’d liken the tone to something the Coen brothers might dream up; somewhere between Fargo and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a recent NPR interview, Allen was asked, “What’s your problem with people?” Allen answered, “I think some of them are wonderful, but [there] are so many of them that are not. I was one of the few guys rooting for the comet to hit the Earth. Statistically, more people that deserved to go would go.” You may say that these are the words of an irrational man, but if you’re willing to concede that he may have a point, go see Irrational Man. B+
Irrational Man is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.