Film review: Irrational Man

David Gritten / 09 September 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten has mixed feelings about Woody Allen’s latest, Irrational Man.

Half a century into his film-making career, and it’s a rare new Woody Allen film that fails to remind us of at least one of its many predecessors. It’s not that Allen keeps making the same film over and over, exactly, but he does tend to revert to familiar themes in order to re-examine them.

While watching Irrational Man, I was reminded of his Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989), which is good news, and Match Point (2005), which is emphatically not. Both those films featured a central character tempted to have someone murdered, and wondering if they could get away with it. This ‘perfect crime’ motif also crops up in Irrational Man, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a  philosophy professor newly arrived at a small New England liberal arts college.

His reputation precedes him. He’s a renegade, no stranger to drink and increasingly scornful of academic values. This rebel-without- a-cause act seems to attract plenty of women on campus, notably Jill, a bright, fresh-faced student (Emma Stone), and Rita, an unhappily married professor (Parker Posey). Yet Lucas, a depressive newcomer in a place that looks like paradise, openly wonders if  life has any meaning at all.  

Moral arguments and daily dilemmas

Is he unbalanced? He claims he is looking for some decisive act to give his existence some meaning, and his chance arises when he and Jill accidentally overhear a conversation in a coffee shop about a local judge who has acted cruelly and insensitively. Allen shows his usual flair for bolting moral arguments on to daily dilemmas, and for the most part Irrational Man flows along rather  smoothly. It’s worth sticking around till the ingenious climax, which is almost worthy of Alfred Hitchcock and arguably the nearest thing to an action sequence you will ever see in a Woody Allen film.

Having said that, much of the plotting is decidedly rickety, dependent on chance and coincidences, with characters who talk more like script devices than plausible people. 

But the central performances go a long way towards making Irrational Man palatable. Abe Lucas seems a sullen, introverted character for a lead role, yet Phoenix does a fine job of accentuating his foibles and contradictions. (It’s also a relief to find lead actor in a Woody Allen film who isn’t trying to sound and act like Woody Allen.)

Emma Stone, an increasingly significant film actress, does a lot of the dramatic heavy lifting in the role of earnest, faintly besotted Jill. Still, it’s Parker Posey, a somewhat forgotten actress who was known as the ‘indie film queen’ in the '90s, who really shines here, investing Rota with a mature, fatalistic and possibly doomed passion.

Allen has made many worse films in the past 10 or 15 years, and Irrational Man is about average within the context of his total body of work. It won’t set the world alight (though I’d love to see Posey up for awards consideration). But Woody fans – and I count myself among them – will probably be happy enough.

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