Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is having a not-too-surprising existential crisis. Life just isn’t worth living anymore; drive and purpose have been lost. Even as bright student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) becomes fascinated with Abe and their friendship blooms, Abe remains apathetic to his life. That is, until a chance encounter clicks everything into place for the professor, playing out like a cross between Wings of Desire and Kick-Ass… Talking about this film without spoilers is tough!
So let’s get one of the elephants in the room out of the way: like Woody Allen’s previous film Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man features an older man who attracts the amorous attentions of a young woman played by Emma Stone. This is just one of Allen’s things. (And indeed, the profession of Abe Lucas in this film is really just a barely-more-explicit-than-usual excuse for Allen’s characters to talk about their problems with heightened pop psychology.) What did initially weird me out here was the inevitability of that set-up in Allen’s screenplay. When the news arrives that Professor Lucas is coming to join the faculty of Jill’s small college, she and other characters make knowing jokes about how she won’t be able to resist such an “interesting” man, beer gut or no. In Jamie Blackley’s Roy, boyfriend to Jill, we also have a character type very familiar to these situations: the boringly supportive partner who is used as a foil of the exciting other (see Hamish Linklater in Magic in the Moonlight; Emily Mortimer in Match Point). It’s all very Woody-by-numbers. But what Irrational Man does with these elements is what really matters, and it more than delivers in twists of the story that lead the film down a rich strain of black comedy.
At the core of the film are Phoenix and Stone. They give very typical Allen-y performances, physically very naturalistic but attuned to his particular psychological frequency. He is all insular world-weariness, wielding a flask as most people wield a smartphone. She is a beacon of intelligent innocence, welcoming novelty amongst her routines. Narration is used via both leads, and it is used to score self-conscious laughs alongside the darker turns of the story. That story is a simple but engaging one, and encompasses a literally done transition from protagonist to antagonist with skill (more on that in the spoilery P.S. I need one when I have to be so opaque in the review proper!).
Woody Allen has directed at least one film a year since 1982, and Irrational Man is a full-bodied and solid entry into his canon. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but neither is it a trifle. I enjoyed watching this film more than any of his since Midnight in Paris, and probably even before. The main body of the film is fun, but there is a bit of a comedown toward the end, giving the feeling of almost paying for the fun you’ve had; it’s a technique that reminds me of The Bank Job, of all things. Allen has crafted an interesting counterpoint film to his bleak Match Point, aided by the easy chemistry and dramatic weight of Phoenix and Stone. Irrational Man is an effective and fun ride, though it is hard to discuss it in detail without spoilers, hence the post-script. 7/10.
P.S.: *SPOILERS* So this is a movie where you watch the trailer, you think, “Huh”, and then you move on. It’s probably only because I’m a completist and Woody Allen fan that I went to see this one, and I’ll say that I now admire the trailer because it doesn’t give away the delightful way that the story just sort of skews and commits to an unexpected new direction: when Abe overhears the story of a mother being legally railroaded by a corrupt judge, he decides to galvanize his own ineffectuality into the goal of killing that judge. And after the deed is done, he decides to kill again to protect the secret of the first murder.
This is what I was alluding to with the literal protagonist-to-antagonist transition. Murder one: Abe wants justice done and proactively kills. Murder two: Jill wants justice done and is stopped by Abe’s attempted murder. It’s a nice and efficient little story trick and I enjoyed watching it play out. And I also mentioned before that Irrational Man is a really fascinating counterpoint to Match Point. In the latter film, Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s main character got away with his murder through sheer good luck in a stunner of an ending; in the former film, the main character is hoist by his own petard and dies through sheer bad luck. The contrasts continue, but that’s the main one, and by extension the moral universes of each film come off very differently: the hand guiding the ending of Irrational Man seems a benevolent one, while the bleak close of Match Point portrays a very uncomfortable and disturbing truth.