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Irrational Man

D: Woody Allen / 95m

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg, Kate McGonigle, Tom Kemp

In the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, Woody Allen’s annual offering to a grateful movie-going public was something to look forward to. With the turn of the century though, the cracks began to show, and the triple threat of Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007) seemed to indicate that Allen had lost his story telling mojo. Since then he’s managed to regain some of that mojo but the last decade has been patchy at best. When he’s on top form, as with Blue Jasmine (2013), there’s no one who can touch him. But he’s just as likely to release something as oddly unrewarding as You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010).

Irrational Man, Allen’s latest, is a movie that at first glance looks to be one of his on-form releases. A romantic comedy of philosophical manners, Allen introduces us to Abe Lucas (Phoenix), a philosophy professor who comes to teach at Braylin College in Rhode Island. Abe is a troubled soul, weighed down by despair and the kind of melancholy that won’t let him be happy or find joy in the world. He also has a reputation as a womaniser and an alcoholic, but these are overlooked because of the high regard in which he’s held and the caché the college gains by having him there.

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Despite his depressed airs and less than sunny disposition, Abe still manages to attract the attention of two very different women: fellow professor, Rita Richards (Posey), who is unhappy in her marriage and looking for a lover, and philosophy student Jill Pollard (Stone), who is attracted to Abe’s intellect and wants to help him out of the existential crisis he’s experiencing. At first, Abe resists both women’s approaches, and continues to live a bland, unfulfilling existence, refuting their beliefs that they can help him and refusing to accept that there is an answer to his particular personal crisis.

Both women persist in their attentions, with Jill having the better fortune. She begins spending more and more time with Abe, listening to his pessimistic outlook on life and love, and refusing to believe that he’s entirely right. But she’s still not able to gain any real headway… until the day they overhear a woman in a coffee shop complaining about the judge (Kemp) who’s unfairly dealing with her custody battle. Abe is suddenly galvanised into helping the woman with her predicament. His solution: to kill the judge in question. Once the decision is made, Abe finds his whole attitude has changed. He enjoys life again, appears happy and relaxed, and sleeps with Rita. With Jill agreeing in principle that the judge is too mean to live, he sets about concocting the perfect murder.

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Boosted by this newfound purpose, his relationship with Jill deepens, so much so that she splits from her boyfriend, Roy (Blackley). Caught up in Abe’s more positive outlook, she comes to believe that she loves him, and does her best to persuade him that he loves her. As they grow closer, Abe’s scheme to murder the judge is successful, and he and Jill celebrate the man’s demise (though Jill retains her initial discomfort about doing so). But when Jill begins to suspect that Abe really has committed murder, her suspicions, as well as the police arresting an innocent man, lead her to make a fateful decision.

Taking Irrational Man at face value, Allen appears to have constructed a romantic comedy that has a few telling things to say about the nature of free will and moral choices. But beneath the movie’s attractive sheen – the Rhode Island locations are given added lustre thanks to DoP Darius Khondji – Allen’s philosophical insights prove less than convincing, and the justification Abe gives for his actions come across as self-serving rather than fully thought out reasons made from the moral high ground. Along with such telling remarks as “So much of philosophy is just verbal masturbation”, and “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”, the movie looks and sounds like it knows what it’s saying, but when Jill challenges Abe’s assertions later on, the hollow nature of his reasoning becomes clear and the viewer is faced with the idea that Allen may not be as en point as he himself would like.

As a result, concerns over Abe’s philosophical stance remain throughout the movie, and Allen never really addresses the contradictions that arise through the narrative’s insistence on making murder into some kind of aphrodisiac for the soul and mind. But while this is problematical at best, the movie suffers even more thanks to the tired mechanics employed to bring Abe and Jill together. Their relationship has the feel of an intellectual exercise rather than the organic outcome of their proximity in the classroom. Jill’s upbeat demeanour and determination to make Abe “happier” borders on obsession, while her change of heart later on is as abrupt as it is convenient for the narrative. Stone does her best but she’s continually hampered by Allen’s insistence on making Jill a paragon of positivity, a decision that doesn’t give the actress much room for manoeuvring.

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Phoenix fares slightly better by virtue of having the lion’s share of the screen time, but like Jill, Abe is the kind of character who only exists in the movies and as such is more annoying than sympathetic. Allen doesn’t even allow the character (or Phoenix) to display any self-doubt once he decices to kill the judge, and as with Jill’s change of heart, Abe’s road-to-Damascus moment seems forced. Phoenix also appears to be having more fun as the depressed Abe than he is as the energised Abe, something that seems counter-intuitive but on occasion does at least allow the material to feel more natural.

With Allen preferring to show how witty he can be at the expense of various philosophers’, the romance between Abe and Jill takes a back seat, and the other characters, Posey’s desperately lovelorn Rita aside, fade into the background (and often during a scene). A subplot involving Jill’s boyfriend proves distracting and underdeveloped, and a further subplot addressing Rita’s dissatisfaction with her marriage seems included to give the character some measure of depth (or Posey something more to do than look bored and/or frustrated). Ultimately it’s hard to care for anyone in Irrational Man, and that includes Abe and Jill, a couple who look and sound too much like an approximation of a couple than the real thing. All in all, the movie struggles to address the issues it raises and lacks the finesse Allen has brought to other, more successful projects.

Rating: 5/10 – mildly diverting, and superficially amusing, Irrational Man should be filed under Minor Allen; while not entirely unrewarding, the movie isn’t particularly inviting either, and anyone thinking of watching it should do so only if they’re Allen completists or fans of Phoenix or Stone.