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.
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.
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.
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.
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.