Review: Irrational Man
PLOT: A depressed, alcoholic professor moves to a small New England town and finds new direction in life when he decides to commit a terrible crime.
REVIEW: The dark possibilities of the human soul has long fascinated and spurred on Woody Allen, whose latest film IRRATIONAL MAN deals with one of his favorite topics: murder. Murder in and of itself doesn't much interest Allen, but what does is the disintegration of a man's moral fibre when he at first contemplates - and ultimately goes through with - the forced ending of another human's life. In Woody's often cynical and unfair world, murder is usually an easy way out with little actual consequence - except for the way it affects the murderer himself. Frequently, the murderer is left unpunished, and the moral fibre that may have been eaten away likely wasn't of much use to begin with.
Woody of course toyed with the idea of murderer as put-upon protagonist in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and MATCH POINT to splendid effect (although the former is certainly more splendid than the latter); his killers in those films saw no way out, fancied themselves victims of circumstance, and those they killed were actually little more than nuisances standing in the way of their progression. IRRATIONAL MAN presents us with a different kind of killer, dare I say one even more unsympathetic than the men in CRIMES and MATCH. Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a slovenly professor who moves to a New England college town to teach English. He's seemingly beyond caring about anything, let alone his new job; he blatantly drinks around everyone he meets, he slurs his way through conversations, he can hardly manage an "uh huh" in the direction of a colleague. In one (somewhat silly) scene, he even semi-attempts suicide by engaging in a round of Russian roulette at a student party. Abe, like so many Allen characters, is a battered intellectual slumming it in a doom-and-gloom world, and he's currently at the end of his rope
Naturally, he's irresistible to at least two women, one of them much younger. (Again, this is a Woody Allen film.) Parker Posey plays a married colleague who practically throws herself at Abe upon meeting him; sadly, his ennui is so powerful he can't even achieve an erection with her. Emma Stone plays Jill, a peppy student who is mysteriously drawn to Abe's sad-sack nature; either she sees the withering genius in him barking to get out or she simply views him as a project. (The movie doesn't get too deep into her psyche.) To his credit, Abe doesn't want to fool around with Jill, as she has a boyfriend and a genuine sweetness that he doesn't want to sully. But he's happy to keep a platonic relationship going with her, and the two become close. One day, while sitting together in a diner, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation of great importance in the next booth. Suddenly, Abe is shaken from his malaise with a renewed sense of purpose, one that involves him committing a heinous crime.
I won't get more specific about what happens, but the rationale behind Abe's decision is actually an ethical brain-teaser, making IRRATIONAL MAN more interesting than it previously had been. The first act of the film is ho-hum, with Phoenix almost too convincing as a boring drunk; the character isn't nearly as compelling as the movie thinks he is. Similarly, his burgeoning romance with Jill is strictly been-there, done-that stuff; we don't understand her infatuation with him, nor do we care if they seal the deal. But once the crime is committed and Abe is a changed man, Allen's film picks up steam as we watch Abe deal with the consequences and simultaneously wonder how we might react. Of course you would never do what Abe does here, but what if..? Fun, and twisted, to think about, and Allen - who is still good at prodding his audience's collective id - allows us to smile while contemplating such thoughts.
That said, IRRATIONAL MAN is still territory meant for Woody devotees. Non-fans of the 79-year-old director are wise to stay away, as they'll likely find the dialogue dull and pretentious, the movie's moral compass seriously askew and the acting a little too mannered. Even Allen's most loyal fans won't be able to argue with some of these points. Indeed, while Phoenix and Stone are both serviceable in Allen's care, they most certainly don't deliver career bests here. (Although Stone is so naturally captivating you'll easily overlook some of her weaker moments.) Honestly, it's Posey who steals the show as a gin-soaked mess; Posey actually overcomes some of Allen's more stale dialogue with a convincingly offbeat performance. Of course, this is Parker Posey, who was born for offbeat performances.
Allen's movies are so hit and miss these last couple decades. IRRATIONAL MAN is neither one of the late greats, like BLUE JASMINE or MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, nor is it one of his forgettable, uninspired efforts like MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT. It earns points for presenting some intriguing concepts and keeping us invested thanks to a rejuvenated second half, but you'll be hard pressed to remember it very fondly beyond its few absorbing notions.