A More Rational Woodman?

Irrational Man
(USA, 96 min.)
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley
Joaquin Phoenix as Abe and Parker Posey as Rita.
Photo by Sabrina Lantos © 2015 Gravier Productions, Inc. Courtesy SPC/Mongrel

Is Woody Allen showing a change of heart in the latest chapter of his ever-prolific career? After the sunny and unusually optimistic Magic in the Moonlight comes the brainy dramedy Irrational Man. Irrational Man seems like just another “Woody Allen film” on the surface, but a turn late in the game offers a wholly unexpected twist of fate for a leading man in the Woody Allen oeuvre. The film challenges the talky brainiacs who usually gab in existential name-dropping, rambling philosophy, and literary musing by making its protagonist Abe Lucas (a smartly cast Joaquin Phoenix) test the existential conundrums he shares with students in his university lectures. Philosophy class rarely calls for hands on experience, and Irrational Man mischievously challenges the practice of empty rhetoric.

The stormy, slobby Abe stirs up hormones and sparks bright minds when he becomes the newest addition to the philosophy department at Brayden University in Newport, Rhode Island. The picturesque small town on the East Coast provides an ideal setting for the romantic and intellectual storm that Abe brews when he begins a dangerous love triangle featuring an affair with Rita (Parker Posey, making her first appearance in an Allen film), a professor from the chemistry department on one corner, and Jill (Emma Stone, back in Allen territory after Moonlight), a bright student, on the other. Rita is in the midst of a boozy mid-life crisis and throws herself at Abe to escape her banal marriage while Jill looks at her professor with a similar eye for a fresh start. Abe doesn’t seem especially keen on either woman, though, as his sluggish intellectual solipsism keeps him cozy in a routine akin to Rita’s marriage.

However, Abe finds the inspiration he needs when Jill invites him to eavesdrop on a conversation at an adjoining diner booth. The woman behind them laments a disastrous custody battle and an unfair judge who allegedly favours her husband and seems poised to deprive her kids of the better life they would have with their mother. The woman’s heartfelt defeat strikes Abe as a tragedy about the banality of bureaucratic evil that fuels the ideas that he practices in theory. The professor, it seems, has the opportunity to test the thesis that a man can take a human life while preserving the moral order of the world. This scene in Irrational Man forms the film’s centrepiece as Allen lets the gravity of the opportunity weigh down on the professor. As he turns the tables, placing the viewer in the headspace of the victim and prospective killer alike, Irrational Man sparks a dialogue between evil men and just desserts as the film cuts back and forth between diner booths and Abe sets his mind on murder.

Irrational Man then develops a Strangers on a Train type scenario as Abe plots to murder a man he has never met. Irrational Man most obviously calls to mind Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors since it has a wealthy anti-hero commit murder and then immerse himself in the philosophical repercussions of his decision. Unlike the guilt-ridden Judah (Martin Landau), Abe feels no remorse for his crime, but both men commit their deeds from a place of privilege that remains central to the morality play of their respective films. Allen and Phoenix invite the audience to explore the drive that makes a man commit such a cold act merely to test a hypothesis.

Irrational Man mostly suffers for the echoes of previous Allen films it raises—Abe’s musing on “a human life” is pure Crimes and Misdemeanors territory while the nods to Dostoyevsky put it in the court of Match Point. Crimes remains Allen’s best drama but Irrational Man nevertheless plays as a strong dramedy in its own right. It’s a lighter lark than the dark morality plays of Crimes and Match Point alike, but much of the sunnier spark comes from the rhythmic editing between the stories of the love triangle that shape Abe into a man removed from reality and responsibility.

The paunchy Phoenix proves himself a shrewd lead as he immerses himself in the darker side of Abe’s philosophical repercussions. The performance mostly succeeds because Phoenix doesn’t try to emulate Allen himself, whereas many male leads act as neurotic surrogates for the actor/director (and only Owen Wilson has done so with any degree of success). He instead creates a uniquely fascinating and unlikable anti-hero from Woodyland. Stone is a good match as the naïvely wide-eyed Jill, while Parker Posey is a scene-stealer as Rita. Irrational Man marks a welcome return for Posey to auteur-driven indie filmmaking and her performance is perfectly in tune with the humour and complexities of Allen’s work.

Posey crafts the strongest of the three characters in part because Irrational Man challenges her to define Rita on her own terms. Whereas Abe and Jill get their own snippets of inner monologue, which mostly amounts to empty speculation, Rita resides on Posey’s dry humour to come to life. Posey infuses Rita with deadpan wit and a brash desire to escape her life as she wears Rita’s fatigue and restlessness with a thirsty need to refuel. The most provocative question of Irrational Man is not what drives a man to murder, but what inspires such a complicated character like Rita to settle for a murderer if she thinks he offers the ticket to a better life. Irrational Man also shifts the generally imbalanced aged split between the male and female characters by making Rita the better match for Abe—both for her complexity and for her messiness—while Jill’s attraction to the older man encounters flags from friends and family who warn her that Abe is a mistake.

The film creates a sophisticated triangle of relationships in a larger web of improvements. One superficial casting choice for a walk-on role, for example, also brings a rare actor of colour into an Allen film, if only to put her in the centre of the frame and have her depart after a bit of dialogue. (But it's a notable effort for a filmography that even fans must admit is whitewashed, and hopefully as step towards more significantly diverse casts.) Most significant, however, is the film’s portrayal of the morally bankrupt philosopher. It’s difficult to engage with the film fully without spoiling a turn of events in the finale that makes Irrational Man an anomaly in Allen’s oeuvre, but Irrational Man, more than any of Allen’s films, shows evidence of a filmmaker who has finally reviewed his great if checkered filmography and admitted that some of his signature traits are also signature flaws. Irrational Man is one of the most interesting entries in the latter arc of the Allen oeuvre, primarily for how provocatively it cries bullshit on the navel-gazing that defines many a leading man in the films of Woody Allen. Allen doesn’t make amends here, but the film contains fascinating seeds of acknowledgement for past wrongs.

There’s a different sort of academia going on in Irrational Man than one usually sees in Allen’s films, however, as the messy denouement of Abe’s crime puts the man on trial for his sense of entitlement just as much as it does for the moral and legal crime he commits. Irrational Man casts a verdict against those who pass judgement on mere hearsay and asks who has the right to condemn a man one doesn’t know based purely on gut-level instinct. It’s fascinating turn on questions that ripple throughout other Allen films, but the angle and the means are new territory for Allen. Irrational might be the Woodman at his most rational.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Irrational Man is now playing in theatres.
It screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne beginning July 31.