(2.5 / 5)
Woody Allen has got it made.
Despite the allegations against him that have come to light in recent years – I bring this up only to say that I don’t have a stance to take – he gets to jet off once a year to wherever takes his fancy and shoot a film there with, it seems, any actor who takes his fancy; though mostly young, attractive ones of late.
While Allen’s previous travelogues have taken us to the likes of Rome, Paris, Barcelona, and, most recently, the French Riviera – 2008 to 2014 could be charitably described as Allen’s European period – his latest, Irrational Man, sees the now 89-year-old director staying a little closer to home.
The film follows philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), who arrives to teach at the fictional Braylin College in New England. A well-regarded burn-out, brooding and articulate, he apparently holds a certain appeal for the opposite sex. Even compared to other Woody Allen surrogates Abe is something of a Lothario, despite his impotency and alcoholism.
Among the woman throwing themselves at him is desirous college student Jill (Emma Stone), who sees Abe’s suffering as an antidote to her preppy, well-meaning boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley). Abe is subsumed in his own existential crisis; that is until a chance conversation overheard at a diner gives him a new lease on life.
The name-dropping of Kierkegaard and Kant makes sense in context but still feels pretentious when you consider the lack of developed thought.
Darker than 2014’s Magic in the Moonlight — and markedly less charming — Irrational Man feels like a more romantic gloss on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Unlike in Crimes and Misdemeanors, though, or even Cassandra’s Dream, Allen doesn’t invest in the moral ramifications of Abe’s decision — it just sort of happens, almost conveniently.
Phoenix tries his best to imbue Abe with some likability but his usual wry deadpan seems glib here. It’s understandable Abe might be a bit of a narcissist, what with all the interest from the opposite sex, but he’s self-obsessed almost to the point of sociopathy. The usually effervescent Stone is, if anything, even less sympathetic; saddled with the role of a wheedling remorseless cheat.
Parker Posey’s desperately-seeking Rita could be a great character if only the film had any real interest in her besides as a tool of Abe’s desires.
An exercise in free thinking right up its Hays Code-sanctioned climax, Irrational Man bubbles along engagingly with Russian Roulette and visits to the funfair, but this is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, all upbeat jazz soundtrack and reassuringly recognizable title font. Even by the standards of Allen’s later output this is slight stuff and lacks his usual likability to buoy it up.
Sophisticated comfort food, sure, but what’s rationality got to do with it?