Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Irrational Man is a perfectly acceptable film from most filmmakers, but coming from Woody Allen, you expect something more intuitive and less redundant. The film, focusing on a man who faces an existential crisis but finds himself invigorated at the prospect of murdering someone, takes ideas from Allen’s previous efforts and fuels a story driven by hubris of both the artist and its creation. Allen’s characters here are rarely their own specimens. I cannot remember much in the way of backstory for these people, particularly the women, as they all revolve around Joaquin Phoenix’s eccentric, manically depressed Abe, who feels like a caricature that has made up his past with ridiculous details. Sadly, that’s Allen playing his character as an actual person in that vein. I’ve found Allen’s efforts of late to be dwindling in quality since Midnight in Paris, as To Rome With Love wallowed in absurdity while Magic in the Moonlight had more laughs and twists as its logic waned. Here, though, Irrational Man is simply unfunny yet it ends on a punchline. Allen’s film is a tonal mess twirling a web of questionable morality.
Here, we focus on the aforementioned Abe. He’s a tormented philosophy professor that travels to Santa Barbara for a new teaching position over the summer. A man who makes getting drunk look elementary, Abe finds himself in a creative rut and a genuine existential crisis. His personal and professional life haven’t lifted off in ages, with him stuck in the middle of writing a book and failing to have intimate encounters for the past year. He meets a fellow professor, Rita (Parker Posey), whose personal life is genuinely reprehensible as she openly wants to cheat on her vacationing husband in favor of the philosophy drunkard. But Abe seems to be infatuated with someone else: a far younger woman, a student named Jill (Emma Stone). She’s entranced by Abe’s laid-back and logic-fueled approach to life. One day, as their relationship grows stronger, they overhear a conversation about a woman whose terrible ex-husband may gain custody of her two kids because a judge is being paid off and morally corrupt. Something should be done, right? Well, Abe thinks just that, and looks into a way to murder the judge for the good of humanity.
Every Woody Allen film has to be read in a particular way considering the creative paths he continues to take. They emulate much of the personal ambiguity that has happened in the past decade of Allen’s life, with questions regarding his romantic affairs with underage women. When films early in Allen’s career like Manhattan dealt with these issues as a morally distinguished through-line, it worked. Now, it feels tired and uncomfortable. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is fine given the role that’s provided, but he’s mostly acting as a self-entitled man who effectively tricks those around him for much of the film into believing he’s morally just. There’s a particularly great conversation in the film that occurs late when Abe and Jill go through how someone could justify murder, even with the most supportive circumstances imaginable. It’s riveting. Yet much of Allen’s film involves characters talking to each other in a way that increases Abe’s ego. The female characters are left on the sidelines and I cannot, for the life of me, remember anything personally about Jill. Emma Stone is a hell of a seductress, but her character is a shell of a female. That accurately describes Allen’s films of late: shells of what they should be, even if they look and sound very convincing.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)