Rated R for some language and sexual content. One hour, 36 minutes.
Publication date: Jul. 31, 2015
Review by Susan Tavernetti
Sometimes the 79-year-old filmmaker's practice of churning out a film every year results in a miss.
Relying too extensively on voice-over narration to enter the minds of his main characters, Allen introduces Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) as the brooding new philosophy professor arriving at the fictional Braylin College in Newport, Rhode Island. Maybe he will "put some Viagra into the department." The campus buzzes with rumors about the tormented, complex outsider who compulsively swigs single-malt Scotch from a flask and attracts females like flies. Unfortunately, the charismatic appeal of Abe Lucas may not cast the same spell over the viewer as on smitten co-ed Jill (Emma Stone) and colleague Rita (Parker Posey).
Years ago, Allen would have cast himself as the suffering, neurotic man in search of a meaningful act or a muse to spark him back to life. Anguish and despair lurked around the edges of his comic persona but never overwhelmed the humor. Joaquin Phoenix plays the role straight -- depressed and world weary as in "The Master," with a "Gladiator" blackness rimming his eyes and heart. Abe Lucas doesn't have a funny bone in his pot-bellied body. He reveals to Jill that he had wanted to change the world, so he traveled to war-torn Darfur only to come down with meningitis. Imagine Woody Allen's whining voice recounting the same tale. You'd giggle.
The vulnerable, light side of Phoenix that typifies his performance in "Her" emerges only after Lucas overhears a conversation in a diner that inspires him to commit a series of acts, one more implausible than the next. A sobbing woman tells her friends that a corrupt judge has granted her ex-husband full custody of their children, and she cannot continue the fight due to the prohibitive legal bills. Mulling over the injustice of the situation, the self-described passive intellectual -- who has written articles on situational ethics and compared the theoretical world of philosophy to "verbal masturbation" in his lectures -- embraces his freedom to choose a course of action that drives the rest of the film. The diner scene snaps the drama into a by-the-numbers philosophical construct.
Ironically, the more an invigorated Lucas can breathe again, the more airless the movie becomes. As his best student, Jill questions his ideas on randomness and chance, and raises issues about the morality of his actions -- just as fate surfaces to complicate the predictable plot.
Although improbable and rigidly schematic, "Irrational Man" offers some interesting Allen tropes. The dedicated New Yorker sets this drama on a bucolic college campus, not in the city that he loves. Suffocating and impotent in a small-town environment, Lucas bemoans the fact that these students will grow up to shape the world with their misinformation or passivity. Neurosis again pairs with creativity, but this time Allen's fantasy does not revolve around sex or religious faith. The scales of justice tip. And the director plays God, if not Dostoevsky, to dole out crime and punishment.