Irrational Man (2015) / Drama-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for some language and sexual content
Running Time: 95 min.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Ethan Phillips, Betsy Aidem, Sophie von Haselberg, Susan Pourfar, Tom Kemp
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen

Review published August 11, 2015

Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice, Her) stars as philosophy professor Abe Lucas, an uncouth instructor recently relocated to a new university in Rhode Island, the fictional Braylin College, but who has some renown in philosophy academia circles.  The students think he's great, especially whip-smart, burgeoning writer Jill (Stone, Aloha), who can't help but be drawn to his agile mind and tormented, near-suicidal anguish, boredom, and emotional and physical impotency.  Jill follows him everywhere, eventually falling for him despite having a boyfriend, but Abe consistently steers her drive back around, assuring her that she's better off with her current beau instead.  At lunch in a diner one day, they eavesdrop on a conversation in a booth behind them in which a woman is crying over the fact that she might lose custody of her children due to the slimy judge playing favorites with the ex's attorney.  She hopes the judge will get cancer, but Abe knows that nothing comes of wishes, so he thinks that there is a way to get the judge out of the picture without anyone suspecting -- if a complete stranger like him takes him down permanently.

Irrational Man is light, but not quite a comedy, even with some comedic elements, and an upbeat, toe-tapping jazz score.  It's more of a drama that has elements of ironic humor and thriller elements that feel like they come from the works of Dostoyevsky (indeed, "Crime and Punishment" gets a nod in the course of the film).  Some of that irony comes in the form of how Abe finds the will to live and experience life by the notion that he could end the life of another.  In the process, he has put his own philosophical quandaries into action, that murder and lies are good if the perpetrator sees that justice can be served in the actions most people find reprehensible.  For a man who teaches about ethics, there's more irony on the level of unethical acts he's willing to commit for whatever he feels is the highest good.

Obviously, when you've cast Joaquin Phoenix as the star, you're going to expect a performance of someone completely absorbed in the role he's playing, and certainly the esteemed actor delivers here, more articulate than he's been in recent films, and even cultivates an impressive beer belly to go along with his character's pervasive alcoholism.  It's especially refreshing to see a main protagonist in a Woody Allen (Magic in the Moonlight, To Rome with Love) film not carry the neurotic delivery or quirky mannerisms of Allen's persona, much as Cate Blanchett did in Blue Jasmine, as Abe feels every bit as Phoenix's character, even though he's delivering Allen's usual repartee.  However, there's also strong moments from Emma Stone in an intentionally weak role.  Stone has to play romantic and idealistic at the same time, mostly superficial until pushed outside of her comfort zone, where her character takes on some fine-tuned, natural turns. 

Both Phoenix and Stone take their turns narrating the film, perhaps to fill in many of the blanks that Allen's story line doesn't, as if his script were still in the draft phase as he started to film.  It's not entirely necessary, and it does leave one to wonder how the film might play without the superfluous exposition, but at least it's not pushy enough to get completely in the way. Also impressive is Parker Posey (The Eye) in a role that isn't meaty as lonely and married colleague at the university, Rita, who sees Abe as the escape she's been waiting for all along.   Posey may not be on screen as much as you'd like and she deserves, but she is memorable when she does appear, and plays as well for moments of sadness and seriousness underneath the light-hearted touches bestowed upon her.

For all of the talent on board, perhaps it's a bit of a disappointment that Irrational Man has moments of vim and vigor, but never quite takes hold to become something truly mesmerizing.  There's interesting characters, provocative situations, and an underlying intelligence, and yet, it's never as funny, suspenseful, or gripping as you'd expect, especially given the sometimes salacious subject matter.  Nevertheless, it's watchable, with solid performers and it is playful enough in its tempo such that it's a breeze to watch, enough to garner a recommendation for fans of Allen, or those who enjoy seeing academics show that they really aren't as know-it-all in their lives as they profess to their sponge-minded students who envy them.  In the end, perhaps fittingly, Allen's film plays more like a moral and philosophical musing than a fully realized story, leaving audiences with existential questions to ponder with afterward, even if its answers are more potently wrestled with in his own more masterful works on similar subjects matter in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo