They’re selling you the wrong movie with the marketing for Woody Allen’s Irrational Man. This isn’t a romantic comedy or a tone-deaf story of a young woman falling in love with her older professor. It’s another morality tale from Allen, a return to the questions of murder and guilt he has raised in films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.
There’s a trapped in amber quality to Allen’s scripts these days; they all feel like they were pulled from a drawer where they have been sitting since 1975. Characters speak anachronistically, leaving Joaquin Phoenix to talk about how he found out information on someone by ‘looking it up on my computer,’ but the larger issues examined in Irrational Man are absolutely timeless. If you can get past the slightly stilted, out of touch dialogue the film has much to offer.
Phoenix is Abe, a lush of a philosophy professor who comes to a small New England university to drink and rant at his students. He has no reason to live, and his life is a steady march of unhappiness, one in which he cannot perform sexually and where all of his philosophizing takes on a decidedly nihilistic tinge. But one day he overhears a woman crying about a judge who is ruining her life in a custody hearing, and Abe realizes that if kills this judge he can commit a perfect crime and improve the world on even a small level. And when he offs the judge Abe finds himself finally actualized, happy and discovering a meaning to life.
Emma Stone plays Jill, a student who is infatuated with Abe. She loves the dark and stormy exterior of the failed professor, and she spends every minute with him (much to the chagrin of her boyfriend). When Abe changes - when he becomes suddenly vibrant and alive - she begins to suspect something is off. And as she approaches the truth she begins to consider the philosophical conceit that even the smallest moral transgression opens the door to bigger ones. A little white lie opens the door to all manner of lying; murder opens the door to more murder.
Stone is luminous in the film, and she seems to have the easiest time with Woody’s slightly arcane language. Phoenix, meanwhile, uses his usual mumbling delivery to smooth it all over. He’s paunchy here, occupying fully the space of a guy who has just given up. His chemistry with Stone is palpable, allowing us to accept that this beautiful young woman would be interested in this shambling wreck of a man.
Irrational Man is a smaller piece, a three-hander, with Parker Posey as Rita, a desperate faculty wife finding her own new motivation in an affair with Abe. Posey is terrific, her broad and beautiful smile always covering up for an existential hole in her eyes. The film posits two different reasons why these women would want Abe: Jill wants to fix him, Rita wants to be fixed by her transgressions with him. She, like Abe, finds new life in morally questionable behavior, leaving Jill to be the moral center of it all.
Daruis Khondji returns to shoot the film, giving the smallness of Irrational Man a pleasing glow; he captures both the sunlight of the Northeast as well as the stuffy interiors of an Ivy League college. The film doesn’t quite have the painterly glow he brought to Midnight in Paris, but it’s still well-shot.
The script is admirably tight; every set-up leads to a satisfying pay-off. Woody is sketching a slightly different moral universe here than he did in Crimes and Misdemeanors (still his greatest film in this vein), one that perhaps leans more towards justice than we might expect. As in that film Crime and Punishment comes into play, but there’s no question of whether or not Abe can live with the knowledge that he has murdered - it’s the only way he can live!
Woody Allen turns out a movie every year, sometimes with deeply disappointing results. Irrational Man, thankfully, is one of the better movies of this late period. It’s a lesser film than Crimes and Match Point, but its sticky existential quandaries still make for an absorbing, lightly told story that will appeal to fans of Woody and offer up once again that hope that he has one more great one still left in him.