Irrational Man

Movie Information

The Story: A burned-out philosophy professor gets a new lease on life when he decides to commit the "perfect murder" as a kind of twisted good deed. The Lowdown: Though it just misses being one of Woody Allen's great films, this is still a worthwhile addition to his filmography and a must-see for admirers of the filmmaker.
Score:

Genre: Drama with Dark Comedy
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Sophie von Hasselberg, Ethan Phillips, Betsy Aidem
Rated: R

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It’s summer and that means it’s not only time for this year’s Woody Allen film, but time for the usual crop of Allen bashers to bring out the usual attacks — and more than ever these are marked by what people think they know about Allen’s personal life. (Let us face it, all of us have an opinion on it, but that’s all it is.) Setting all that aside, what is one to make of his latest? There’s no denying that Irrational Man isn’t top drawer Woody Allen, but neither is it that far from it. His best film involving committing murder — exempting the mostly comedic Manhattan Murder Mystery (1994) and Scoop (2006) — remains the complex Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). I know I’m supposed to admire Match Point (2005), but I don’t.

 

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While Irrational Man is no Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s an intriguing work that is more than a little reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Oh, I don’t mean in terms of plot, but of setting and atmosphere. (At the same time, the dynamic between Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright in Hitchcock’s film and that of Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone here is almost identical.) Allen’s vision of an upscale Rhode Island university is no more realistic than Hitchcock’s backlot small-town America — and neither is meant to be anything other than the filmmakers’ personal visions of such places. In both cases, the communities are depicted as enclosed hotbeds of gossip, and that gossip helps to drive the plot. Allen’s idea of college town gossip is more slanted toward dark comedy, or at least a different kind of comedy. Hitchcock’s film leaves most of its comedy to Hume Cronyn’s murder-enthusiast character — approximated here by Ethan Phillips as Emma Stone’s father. Allen’s film is peppered with dark comedy from every corner.

 

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The story concerns Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a philosophy professor whose reputation as a womanizer, a drunk, and an outspoken troublemaker precedes his arrival at the film’s fictional Braylin University. This might be seen as a downside to most, but to this enclosed and bored society, Abe’s reputation makes him just that more alluring — and affords him immediate celebrity status, especially with the ladies. But all this adoration — and its attendant promises of sex — counts for nothing with Abe, who is suffering from some kind of existential crisis that has, among other things, left him impotent. Unsurprisingly — given the ennui level of the university — this only makes him that much more interesting.

 

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Where most people would dismiss Abe as a self-absorbed jerk (or worse), the characters here — especially faculty member Rita (Parker Posey), who is bored with her life and her husband, and student Jill (Emma Stone), who is dazzled by his “tormented genius” quality (and whose own boyfriend is on the dull and doting side). Attempted dalliance with Rita changes nothing, nor does his (at first) scrupulously chaste friendship with Jill. What changes Abe is his decision to make the world a better place by removing a cruel judge via the “perfect murder.” It is this decision — and its execution — that cures Abe’s terminal malaise, along with his impotence. Of course, it also creates a very different set of problems, and that’s where the film becomes fascinating.

 

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Those are the mechanics of the plot, but they’re not what makes the story interesting. That has more to do with the underlying moral questions this raises — for more than just Abe. And that “more” includes the viewer. (As in Allen’s other “murder” dramas, the victim is not likable.) What is perhaps even more interesting is that Allen has here made a film where the main character, Abe, is not played like a Woody Allen surrogate. There is nothing Allenesque in Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. Instead, that aspect surfaces in Emma Stone’s Jill — and she may just be Allen’s best onscreen alter ego. This isn’t by any means a great Woody Allen film, but it’s one with great things in it. Rated R for some language and sexual content.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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21 thoughts on “Irrational Man

  1. Big Al

    “There is nothing Allenesque in Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. ”

    Except for his pursuit of much younger women?

    • Ken Hanke

      Allen’s personal life — or more to the point, his past, since he’s been with the same younger (but not longer all that young) woman for 20+ years — is kind of irrelevant here.

  2. Me

    4 1/2 stars, I thought Woody was too lazy and middle class to make good movies.

        • Ken Hanke

          And Allen — like lots of filmmakers — has been seriously off-base about his own work more than a few times.

  3. sally sefton

    I just saw this film and left with more questions than answers. This is a good thing. I loved the film, and I am surprised that it got a mere 39% fresh on RT. Though for me this isn’t a true measure of a film’s worth any more than recent polls which indicate Donald Trump would be a fine president aren’t a measure of his worth. ( please dear god)

    I am aware that some crave something in a Woody Allen film that is reminiscent of his early films. But this film doesn’t stray from his habit of putting people on display in what they say. His movies are driven by conversation. And this somewhat socratic format is always forcing us to examine ourselves and our urges and missteps as a result of those urges.

    “What is perhaps even more interesting is that Allen has here made a film where the main character, Abe, is not played like a Woody Allen surrogate. There is nothing Allenesque in Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. Instead, that aspect surfaces in Emma Stone’s Jill — and she may just be Allen’s best onscreen alter ego.” I agree with this and wonder if some of the criticism is a result of people being thrown off by the notion of a female surrogacy. Either that or some continue to be clouded by allegations which have nothing to do with art.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      I agree with this and wonder if some of the criticism is a result of people being thrown off by the notion of a female surrogacy.

      Maybe, but it’s not the first time he’s taken this approach. Rebecca Hall was an excellent Allen surrogate in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

    • Ken Hanke

      I almost hate to mention it — because it has the potential of opening another can of worms — but Mia Farrow sometimes tended to echo his performing style in comedic movies where she was the lead, e.g., The Purple Rose of Cairo and Alice.

      • sally sefton

        Mia Farrow is a perfect example. Her neurosis was almost more than I could bear at times. Maybe it was the pitch of her voice.

  4. Bob Voorhees

    Have we arrived at a point in cinematic time when a movie by Woody Allen simply has to praised, no matter how banal it is?? See it again. See if 90% of the diologue isn’t predictable and pedestrian. Did you take Philosophy 101 at State U? Well, then you probably knew all the allusions to Existentialism 101 and found them moth-eaten and shopworn. Female “surrogates” ! Is that the recherché theme for this one? Phoenix IS Woody Allen, minus all the affectations, jerkings, stuttering. You can just see him doing every scene. But he’s too old now. It wouldn’t work. No! Wait! The movie itself would only “work” if Allen were in it. There’s the run and paradox. It’d still be a bad movie; we’ve read it before in Bellow, Malamud, and Updike. But at least we’d have the physical comedy of Woody Allen

    • sally sefton

      “Have we arrived at a point in cinematic time when a movie by Woody Allen simply has to praised, no matter how banal it is??” Overstate much?
      Look, I will praise what I think is praiseworthy. You can do the same. The dialogue wasn’t predictable to me. And taking several undergraduate and graduate classes in philosophy did not make the experience any less satisfying. I found the movie engaging and I left the theater thinking about the film.

      I am kind of mystified that you feel it necessary to bash anyone who liked the movie. Call me banal and pedestrian.
      Macht nichts.

      “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” Friedrich Nietzsche

      • Bob Voorhees

        For Sally: “. . . You (me) found it necessary to bash anyone who liked the movie” Why don’t you send me a quote from my review which states (or even intimates) this? “Bash”!!? Grow up! There’s too much of this sleazy hyperbole in the culture. If you want to criticize me, fine, but do respond to what I actually wrote. BV. By the way, I speak German. It’s “machts nichts” as in “Es machts nichts.” BV

  5. Michael O'Farrell

    A very fair-minded review among the mostly negative reactions by film critics. I went to ‘Irrational Man’ expecting to be disappointed and found myself fully absorbed. The cast is exemplary and Allen’s screenplay has enough wry wit along with the serious machinations of the plot to make this a memorable film. Perhaps not top tier Woody Allen but far and above what is playing on theater screens presently.

  6. I really dug this, probably more than the previous year’s Allen picture MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT.
    Allen is probably the only person currently working who makes films I find too short. A less abrupt ending would’ve pushed this up a notch for me.

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