Especially of late Woody Allen’s (Annie Hall, Mighty Aphrodite) films have been quite uneven. Unlike earlier in his career where you could almost guarantee that a film by him would feature plenty of dry wit, giggles, wry looks at life, anxiety from the male lead, and some clever insights about life in general. Over the past two decades it has been a toss-up as to the quality you are going to get. Some have been rather good like Blue Jasmine (2013), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Match Point (2005) while others like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), To Rome With Love (2012) and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) have been less so. With the release of every new film by Woody Allen I hold my breath and hope for the best. While Irrational Man cannot be classified as one of Woody Allen’s best film it is not dreadful.
We have all had times in our lives when we contemplated the meaning of it all and were a little depressed as a result. That futile feeling is how philosophy professor Abe (Joaquin Phoenix – Walk the Line, Gladiator) lives his life – feeling perpetually uninspired and usually a little drunk. This despite the fact that he has just taken a new teaching job at a small town school called Braylin University in Rhode Island. Everyone at the university and the town is abuzz because he is somewhat of a celebrity in his field. Students, parents and other teachers are talking about and interested in Abe. None more so than a student named Jill (Emma Stone – The Help, Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorace) and fellow teacher, Rita (Parker Posey – Scream 3, Best in Show).
Rita is attracted to the forlorn Abe from the first moment she sees him. The fact that she is a married woman does not stop her from pursuing him. Jill is a bright student who is taking a summer course with Abe. She is intrigued by his reputation, but doesn’t think too much of him as a man until they begin spending time together and then she falls head over heels for him.
The sad sack Abe shuffles and drinks his way through life despite the fact that he has these two attractive and intelligent women following him around like puppy dogs. That is until an existential break causes him to commit an out of left field act that has the effect of reinvigorating the usually depressed intellect.
The idea of someone trying to commit the perfect crime is not a new or very original one in film. What does set this apart from others who have tread on this territory in the past is the fact that the protagonist is doing this to give his life meaning. It is a very existentially driven plot. Obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, but Woody Allen’s films rarely are.
At the beginning the film is rather lighthearted just dealing with a man who seems to have lost hope in life and humankind. Then it takes a rather abrupt dark turn without allowing itself to become too morose. It takes a special kind of writer/director to attempt to make usually dry subjects like philosophy and Kant and serious subjects like gossip, suicide, and murder seem humourous, but Woody Allen is up to the task.
While on the surface this might seem like a romantic comedy it is actually something darker and more serious. It sounds like a couple of other Woody Allen films, no? Me thinks so. While watching it you will almost have a déjà vu kind a feeling. It has that retread element to it. The whole while I was thinking there were elements of Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors to be found here and I was left unsatisfied as they had been done better in the aforementioned films.
In regards to the three lead actors, Stone, Phoenix and Posey, they are all stellar. Though young Emma Stone has demonstrated her considerable range and has already shown herself capable of working within a Woody Allen film (Magic in the Moonlight – 2014). Joaquin Phoenix is his usual steady self. The real revelation of the film is Parker Posey. Not that I previously though she could not act, but it has been so long that I needed this film as a reminder of how good she can be. She brings a layer of vulnerability to her character that makes one that could just be seen as desperate or scheming to be one that you will be feel empathy for.
So, bottom line is that there are reasons to see the film (if you are a fan of Woody Allen’s work, the acting of the three leads) despite its sometimes bleak outlook on life. There is plenty of intelligence and pointed observations of human behaviour to dismiss it outright. Plus it is a nice alternative to all the action or tentpole films out there during the summer time. Just don’t expect the best of Woody.