“[T]his is the third big winner in a row from Allen”
After a streak of films set in the extravagant lands of London, Berlin, and Rome, stopping briefly to shoot in San Francisco and New York City, the unstoppable force of cinema Woody Allen sets Irrational Man, his latest picture, in glamorous Rhode Island. Romanticizing academia and making it equal parts sexy and breezily paced, he focuses on philosophy professor and writer Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), who has just been hired in his respective department at Braylin College, a tiny liberal arts school. Abe is cynical and disillusioned with his life following all the promises he made as an adolescent to incite change in the world until losing his mother to suicide and his best friend on a trip to provide relief in Darfur. He spends his days at Braylin slugging away at single malt scotch in a flask and wallowing in self-loathing and crushed dreams.
Abe becomes friends with Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), a perky young student of his who picks his brain every chance she gets, whether it be about existentialism, a conversational favorite of his, or his own personal life. While Abe will answer any question she has, catering to her curiosities and human interest, he still is in an ostensibly irreparable funk. Even wrapping himself up in an affair with Rita (Parker Posey), a science professor, doesn’t excite him, for his impotence makes love-making nearly impossible and the pleasure achieved by an orgasm has ceased to exist.
However, while eating breakfast with Jill one day, both of them overhear a conversation occurring in the booth next to them between a woman and her friends about a brutal courtroom custody battle she is a entangled in and how she will soon lose her kids because her husband’s lawyer and the judge are good friends. Here, for the first time in a long time, Abe is excited – thrilled, even – to realize he has a potential to commit a moral act that will benefit the woman and society in addition to reclaiming the thrill of existence everyone but him seems to indulge in.
Irrational Man focuses on that tipping point past depression where you’re just content with everything about you and around you sucking. You stick with your passion (in this case, philosophy) because it’s convenient and makes being upright during the day something more tolerable, but in your head, you’re long gone dead and in search of a person, an event, or just about anything to make you appreciate being alive. Consider a scene where Jill drags Abe to a party, only for him to lie on the couch sulking and slugging away at his beer. When the host reveals her father’s revolver in the closet, however, Abe becomes entranced with playing a game of Russian Roulette with himself. While the partygoers freak out at his potential suicide, he claims that it’s an existentialist lesson about the thrill of being alive you cannot find in a textbook. Perhaps I’m cynical (or just young and dripping with idealism), but he’s right.
Abe’s plan to realize his potential morality makes sense, but to carry it out is to commit an amoral and heartless action (I was on the fence about spoiling what said act is, but I’ll leave it hush-hush). However, Abe is so far past the point of rationality, paradoxically, given his field of thought, he can only act irrationally. It’s the only school of thought that makes sense to him at this point – that’s how far gone he is as a person.
Joaquin Phoenix is the ideal actor for Abe, given how many roles Phoenix has thrown himself into that allow complete and total focus on him as a complex, layered individual, sometimes too smart and peculiar for his own good. Allen seems to know just how to utilize him as an actor too, giving him thoughtful ideas to expand on in the presence of Jill or his students, but ultimately, makes him out to be what he is – a troubled soul who isn’t thinking clearly (or perhaps he is and the rest of us are delusional).
This is Emma Stone’s second venture with Allen, the first being Allen’s last picture Magic in the Moonlight, a criminally underrated and unseen film. Stone keeps her aura similar here, an idealistic millennial coming into a stranger’s life at a time where he needs an outsider perspective, despite refusing it every turn. She and Phoenix develop a terrific chemistry with one another, and she has the charm and talent to be a potential Allen regular who can mold and fit herself into nearly any scenario she’s given – the sign of a great actress.
Where Magic in the Moonlight caught Allen in a mood that questioned spirituality and the practice of spiritism, Irrational Man catches him in a philosophical, existentialist one, posing a curious duality to his last film. Irrational Man becomes a film about the paradox of a man in a practical field committing the most impractical act to nearly everyone else, but the most practical one in his own mind. Littered with wry humor, a great deal of suspense and curiosity, despite us, the audience, being with these characters and their actions every step of the way, and a great deal of philosophical insights to chew on or spit out, this is the third big winner in a row from Allen, who is unstoppable in creating these fantastic comedy-dramas that few make anymore.