Irrational Man (2015)
director: woody allen | runtime: 1h 35mins | comedy, drama
Tormented and flawed philosophy Professor, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), gets a new lease on life when he decides to commit an act of murder. This new outlook allows him to find happiness, all while trying to deal with the fact his student Jill (Emma Stone), has fallen for him.
Despite having such a controversial private life Woody Allen has remained one of the most prominent directors for many, even when it seems like he’s slipping and falling into disarray he brings out a few films in a row that prove his relevance. In the most recent years his work Midnight in Paris (2011) won him an Oscar, and also films like Blue Jasmine (2013) and Cafe Society (2016) have raised the quality of his product tremendously. But amongst those films is his existential crisis of a film, Irrational Man, which posts big dilemmas in it’s story while also trying it’s very best to keep Allen’s unique comedy traits afloat.
The film follows Abe Lucas, a troubled academic who’s biggest problems are his mental exhaustion with existence, and the physical toll that can have. He is a reflection of the films nihilistic tendencies and if it weren’t for Joaquin Phoenix this schtick would become tiresome very quickly. Not just that, but the romanticism of academic language can often feel pretentious and while Allen uses it explicitly for his characters, it does give off that unfortunate arrogance, as most of the films early parts consist of a segmented guide through the troubles of it’s main character while being broken up by Abe in his classroom, posing philosophical questions that are hit and miss in their follow through. There is always a hint of satire with Allen’s films, but you can’t help but feel that with this, he isn’t trying to be satirical at all.
Having said that Allen’s character work is brilliantly done, using a chance encounter and a moment of eavesdropping to push the story, and Abe, in a whole new direction. When Abe overhears a woman complaining about a corrupt judge, Abe takes it upon himself to commit the perfect murder and in turn help this woman’s life. But his motives are purely selfish, using philosophical ideas to justify his crime and in turn give him a new lease on life. When the actual crime is in play the film is at it’s most fun, Joaquin Phoenix’s babbling voiceover adds to his characters newfound confidence, but also showcases just how good Allen can be with his words, something that has been his forte for his entire career.
Alongside Joaquin Phoenix is Emma Stone in her second collaboration with the director, as she plays strong-headed student Jill Pollard who is lucky enough (well she sees it that way) to get very close and personal within Abe’s life. For the first part of the film she embodies the stereotype of the student/teacher crush dynamic well, but manages to find much more focus in the latter parts of the film. Beginning as a student who falls for the complications of a man like Abe, and then becoming much more essential as Abe’s ‘perfect crime’ slowly begins to show cracks. Her love of Abe proves to be her downfall, but in the scenes with the two leads they show great chemistry and range and even though it isn’t quite reminiscent of the classic Allen films, it still has merit in it’s own right.
For Woody Allen fans it may tick the boxes, but the reality is that this doesn’t come anywhere near the quality of his early work. It’s difficult to judge a director who has been making a film a year for 40 years, but of course this pattern will always tilt the quality levels. Luckily for Irrational Man it’s neither the worst or the best sitting pretty in the heart of his filmography, and thanks to two great leads, and Allen’s talent for words, this is pushed just above the realms of mediocrity. But while Allen has so easily nailed romance in the past, the introduction of bigger questions feels deep on the surface, but never really resonates on a provoking level.