At the age of 80, Woody Allen shows no signs of fading into obscurity (despite some fervently wishing he would), writing and directing this latest quirky mystery starring Joaquin Phoenix (‘Her’) and Emma Stone (‘Birdman’).
Abe (Phoenix) is an alcoholic philosophy professor with a reputation for sleeping around. He joins the faculty at Braylin College, immediately making an impression on Rita (Parker Posey, ‘Dazed and Confused’), a lonely married chemistry professor. Soon, Abe is enchanting his students too, none more so than Jill (Stone). Jill has a boyfriend though and spends the first half of the film denying she has any feelings for Abe.
Abe feels as though his life has no purpose, suffering from a despair that permeates his existence. One afternoon at a diner with Jill, they overhear a woman lamenting that her children will be taken away because of a corrupt court judge. Abe forms a plan to help this stranger, and suddenly he has meaning and he rediscovers his zest for life. Of course, complications follow, with typical Allen panache.
SWITCH: 'IRRATIONAL MAN' TRAILER
Firstly, lets talk about the most excellent Emma Stone. As far as I’m concerned, she can do no wrong, as she’s absolutely sincere and believable in any role she inhabits (even that pile of confusion ‘Aloha’). In ‘Irrational Man’ she’s the perfect foil for Phoenix’s tortured and then buoyant Abe, layering Jill with self-denial, followed by infatuation and realisation, then disillusionment and horror. I see Oscar’s in Stone’s future - not for this film, but one day.
Multi-award-winning Phoenix is bang on form as Abe, and while it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the painfully articulate writing of Allen with a depressed alcoholic, it becomes more believable as the film continues, particularly as we see Abe hold forth in his philosophy lectures. I suspect Phoenix put on a fair amount of weight for this film to play someone who doesn’t care about anything much except existential crises, as it was quite surprising to see him with a significant pot belly. It’s a little distracting, because it seems so at odds.
As far as I’m concerned, Emma Stone can do no wrong.
‘Irrational Man’ employs narration by various characters to further draw the audience into what they’re feeling and experiencing. I am not sure if it is entirely necessary, but it does add that little bit extra to the film and certainly helps infuse it with that Allen flavour. As does the very clean feel of the film overall – the precise dialogue, the neatly placed scenes and the natural yet play-like direction. Pacing at the start of the film is a little slow, and things take just a tad too long to get moving, but once they do, the slow start is made up for in the quickly concluded final act, where it all comes to a head.
At times ‘Irrational Man’ is quite funny, and it does keep you engaged until the very end with the absurdity of the situation Abe and Jill find themselves in. You find yourself quite invested in Abe’s actions, and Jill’s reactions. Parker’s role as Rita seems almost superfluous, but somehow still necessary to add that extra complication and depth to what might have been a one-dimensional story. As it is, the film has just the right about of depth to make it interesting, but is never too taxing on the cognitive faculties.
If you’d like a little light entertainment that can still trigger some existential brooding, ‘Irrational Man’ would be a safe bet. It’s certainly up there with ‘Magic In the Moonlight’ as one of Woody Allen’s much more tolerable and relatable works.