Genre: Drama, Mystery
Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey
It’s hard not enter into Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s 46th feature film, without wanting to pin all your hopes on it being a masterpiece. After all his last film, the kooky clairvoyant caper Magic in the Moonlight, was, like large portions of his filmography has been since the turn of the 21st Century, cloying and clichéd.
For the first 20 minutes or so, Irrational Man does nothing to bolster your expectations. The notable lack of lively jazz music over the white Windsor typeface of the opening credits immediately instils the air with dour despondency. Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), the drunk and embittered philosophy professor of the title, finds himself facing an existential crisis after he moves to a small-town college campus in New England. And during a lethargic and fairly lifeless first act we watch, with little interest, as Abe attempts and fails to circumvent his psychological torment by forging an unlikely friendship with one of his students (Emma Stone).
Then, as if Allen had jolted his film with a defibrillator, suddenly it springs into life. From despairing beginnings, Irrational Man develops into a deliciously devious drama, after Abe decides that the answer to all of his problems is to commit the perfect murder, and henceforth plots to off a corrupt local judge (Tom Kemp).The morality, or rather the immorality of murder has long since been a theme that has fascinated Allen. In Crimes and Misdemeanors it was Martin Landau’s philandering eye doctor Judah, who found himself forced to hire a contract killer in order to silence the hysterical mistress who threatened to ruin his marriage. While more recently we saw Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ tennis pro Chris turn to the contents of his father-in-law’s shotgun cabinet in order to silence the femme fatale he had fallen for in the critically misjudged Match Point.
Here the difference, and indeed the draw, is that Abe, unlike Judah and Chris, has no motive beyond treating his own mental turmoil. Sure it lacks the dry wit of the former, and the dramatic heft of the latter, but Irrational Man does at least allow its audience to indulge in some fiendish fun.Much of its pleasure comes from Joaquin Phoenix who, having spent the initial setup stumbling around apparently still high off the psychedelic fumes from Inherent Vice, cultivates a charismatically engaging central character. And one who mercifully doesn’t simply come across as another incarnation of the archetypical Woody Allen character. That mantle is instead assumed by Allen’s latest leading lady Emma Stone, whose vivacity and naturalistic charm shines through from the start. Shame then that Woody Allen appears to be on autopilot. Despite injecting an enthusiastic energy into proceedings, his script eventually descends into all-too-familiar territory as it heads towards a disappointingly predictable climax.
His direction, meanwhile, lacks the spark and spice of stronger offerings. Though entertaining, never is the film imaginative or inspired; it’s more mild and mundane, even the repetitive use of the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s jaunty jazz composition soon becomes monotonous. It would seem that hoping for another showpiece from the veteran director was… well, irrational.