The film follows philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), who arrives to teach at the fictional Braylin College in New England4. A well-regarded burn-out, brooding and articulate, he apparently holds a certain appeal for the opposite sex.5 Among the woman throwing themselves at him is desirous college student Jill (Emma Stone)6, who sees Abe’s suffering as an antidote to her preppy, well-meaning boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley). Abe is subsumed in his own existential crisis7; that is until a chance conversation overheard at a diner gives him a new lease on life.
Darker than 2014’s Magic in the Moonlight — and markedly less charming8 — Irrational Man feels like a more romantic gloss on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Unlike in Crimes and Misdemeanors, though, or even Cassandra’s Dream, Allen doesn’t invest in the moral ramifications of Abe’s revelatory decision — it just sort of happens, almost conveniently10. Phoenix tries his best to imbue Abe with some likability but his usual wry deadpan seems glib here9 and the usually effervescent Stone is, if anything, even less sympathetic, saddled with the role of a wheedling remorseless cheat.
An exercise in free thinking right up its Hays Code-sanctioned climax, Irrational Man bubbles along engagingly with Russian Roulette and visits to the funfair11, but this is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, all upbeat jazz soundtrack and reassuringly recognisable title font. Even by the standards of Allen's later output this is slight stuff and lacks his usual likability to buoy it up. Sophisticated comfort food, sure12, but what’s rationality got to do with it?
1 I bring this up only to say that I don't have a stance to take.
2 Allen’s tended to mix it up of late. Few of his old regulars, like Fred Melamed and Dianne Wiest, seem to make appearances anymore.
3 2008 to 2014 could be charitably described as Allen’s European period.
4 All this red brick and polished wood does lack a certain sunlit je ne se quoi.
5 Even compared to other Woody Allen surrogates Abe is something of a lothario, despite his impotency and alcoholism.
6 Since Little Britain is there any everyday surname less desirable than Pollard?
7 The obligatory mentioning of Kierkegaard and Kant makes sense in context but still feels like name dropping when you consider the lack of developed thought.
8 Colin Firth and Emma Stone had great chemistry, even if the age gap was a tad off-putting.
9 It’s understandable Abe might be a bit of a narcissist, what with all the interest from the opposite sex, but he’s self-obsessed almost to the point of sociopathy.
10 Parker Posey’s desperately-seeking Rita could be a great character if only the film had any real interest in her besides as a tool of Abe’s desires.
11 A possible shout out to Strangers on a Train, perhaps.
12 The film’s more artisanal popcorn than pizza, but scarcely filling for it.