Movies:Movie Reviews:Irrational Man

Irrational Man

Irrational Man
Photo: Photo by Sabrina Lantos © 2015 Gravier Productions, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Director(s): Woody Allen

Writer(s): Woody Allen

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey and Jamie Blackley

Reviewed by: Christine Lambert on

Release Date(s)

Jul 24, 2015 - Wide

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a tortured philosophy professor whose reputation precedes him and everyone who anticipates his arrival has their own version of the man who will be teaching at Braylin College. Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) is a student eagerly anticipating the first day of class with Abe, while Rita Richards’ (Parker Posey) anticipation for the fellow professor has more to do with the fantasy of Abe rescuing her from her boring life and marriage than merely a fellow intellectual joining the faculty. Abe is at a crossroads in his life. His accomplishments are many and varied. He has been a political activist, helped many people in different disaster areas around the world and has written many philosophy papers. But all these accomplishments still make him feel like he has not made any real difference, including the impact, or the lack thereof, that he feels he has made on his students. One student, Jill, changes that. With an acknowledgement of a well-written paper, Abe and Jill become friends, making an intellectual connection and spending much of their free time together away from class. Abe’s presence becomes a lesson in subjectivity. He is a tortured artist that Jill quickly becomes fascinated with, but at the same time he is a ticket out of a small town for Rita. Both seem equally fine with overlooking obvious problems like his drinking to fit their fantasies and own needs.

Writer/director Woody Allen’s own fascination with philosophy becomes evident in Irrational Man. There is not one moment in the script where there is any doubt that Abe is a philosophy professor having an existential crisis. The character is so well-written that Abe epitomizes the type of intellectual one would see in a university lecture hall. His pain is seen through his drinking and heard through the slurring of his words, an obvious escape from the pain he is going through. Jill’s preoccupation with Abe has a lot to do with her own lack of exploration physically and mentally, which Abe fulfils. Rita’s desperation for change has all of her hopes hanging onto the fragile Abe like a desperate mountain climber who has just lost their cables.

Even though the writing in Irrational Man is deeply cerebral, the tone of the film does not match what could be a great, dark film. The mood flip flops between drama and comedy more than a freshly caught bass on a fishing boat. The music by The Ramsey Lewis Trio, while beautiful, is misplaced in this film. If Allen was trying to achieve an ironic juxtaposition using that particular music, he would have been better off using the talents of cinematographer Darius Khondji to sharply contrast the beautiful shots with the darkly-written script.

A moment of chance brings clarity to Abe and literally turns his dark world of gloom into one worth living, a change seen in all the characters around him. Here again Allen’s knowledge of philosophy and the great thinkers shines through. Abe takes an irrational act, rationalizes it to justify implementation, and then does the mental gymnastics required to see the action through. Phoenix’s portrayal of Abe shows off his range, as he moves through the film from a desperate, drunken lost soul trying to find meaning to a rejuvenated born-again, life-is-worth-living human being. Stone’s portrayal of starry-eyed Jill shows a young woman searching for herself vicariously through her professor. Stone’s turn from admirer to one who is hurt by her mentor’s actions is beautifully portrayed as we can all relate to someone important who has disappointed us at one time. Posey heartbreakingly portrays a woman so yearning for change that she does not seem to mind that Abe has such a close relationship with his student.

After making forty-five films, Allen is undoubtedly competing against his past work in the mind of the audience. When compared to some of his other films, Irrational Man will probably not make muster. Seen on its own, however, Irrational Man is a deeply intellectual film that will have the irrational actions of an irrational man lingering in their heads long after they leave the theatre.