I admired the acting, but Woody Allen also doesn’t do enough to let his actors truly break loose. When I heard that Allen had cast Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man, I was psyched at the proposition. I imagine Woody saw “The Master,” was blown away, and said to himself, I must work with Phoenix. Phoenix gets to nibble on without really sinking his teeth into this role of Abe Lucas, a brooding, alcoholic philosophy professor. Abe is in the doldrums, he drinks too much, he is impotent, but when he gets involved in a murder plot – you guessed it – he feels alive again. But even the murder itself is cinematically too polite and refined, i.e., murder by poison.
Abe gets one-on-one close with student Jill (Emma Stone) then fellow professor Rita (Parker Posey), and there’s tease, sex and guilt that’s had, but not necessarily in that order. By chance, Abe overhears a conversation in a diner of a random woman about to lose custody of her children to her ex-husband because of a crusty old judge named Spangler has it out for her. It’s perfect, Abe thinks, that as a third-party stranger he could off the judge for this poor woman’s sake, and there would be nothing to connect him to the crime. And plotting a murder will give Abe something to do to get him out of his self-loathing rut!
It would play like a screwy Hitchcockian riff, except yakety-yak leads to confessionals in Woody movies. “Irrational Man” turns into a neurotic moral debate.
Anyone like me who has seen all of Woody’s films in the last 15 years knows where he is leading us with his story. It’s derivative of his other murder-morality plays. Thus, to a trained eye, this becomes more of an exercise than entertainment and I just simply didn’t find anything profound in it. Also, an odd case this time, but since there are basically only six actors in the film, I could watch Phoenix with one actor in one scene, and know immediately who he was going to share his next scene with. At least the early scenes had Phoenix speaking orations to his students in class, but Allen loses his sense with the community (some filming took place at Brown University).
The actors are quite good, as I said. Phoenix brews in dark, jittery contemplation. Yet he never really gets to erupt like his great directors let him do (Woody refuse to take big risks, as a result, Phoenix never gets to go on an acting gorge). Parker, though, as a supporting player has a lonely desperation to her that grabs you by the nuts, and it might be the best performance here – she’s anxious about eventual menopause, and because of that, she’s ripe for spontaneous sexual opportunity. She could have swayed the film in some more fascinating directions had Woody noticed something special and re-wrote the film to include more of her and Phoenix. As usual, “Irrational Man” feels like one of his quick non-proofread drafts through his old-fashioned typewriter. Yes, Stone is good here, better than she was in her first Woody film, last year’s Magic Moonlight or whatever the name of that was.
I’ll remember the title of “Irrational Man” in Woody’s oeuvre better than his others, but unfortunately I’ll mark it as a near-miss in my memory banks.
96 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / FOOD FOR THOUGHT / PROVOCATIVE MOOD
Film Cousins: “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989); “Match Point” (2005); “Cassandra’s Dream” (2008); “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” (2010).