Few working directors are compared to themselves as much as Woody Allen, but the prolific and brilliant Allen brings it upon himself because, let’s face it, for all his filmmaking genius he has a tendency to repeat themes and motifs.
In the dark and wickedly funny and sometimes flat-out wiggy little number titled “Irrational Man,” Allen returns to an idea he has explored in films ranging from “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to “Match Point” to “Cassandra’s Dream”: a tangled web of circumstances leading to the planning and attempted execution of the perfect…
“Irrational Man” seems to be set in the present day, but like so many of Allen’s films, it exists in something of a fantastical parallel universe. In this case the story is set in and around the campus of Graylin College, an idyllic liberal-arts school in Newport, R.I. (Filming actually took place at Newport’s Salve Regina U.). It’s the kind of college where the arrival of a mercurial philosophy professor with a scandalous reputation sends shock waves through the community, where instructors and students alike engage in passionate discussion about the professor’s writings, and juicy gossip about his personal life.
Joaquin Phoenix slides effortlessly into the role of Abe Lucas, who couldn’t care less about the pot belly stretching his too-small T-shirts and is oblivious to the shocked reaction when he pulls out his ever-present flask in public and downs another (un)healthy swallow of single-malt scotch.
Abe might well be a gifted writer, but he’s a terrible teacher who tells his students most of philosophy is pure B.S., and he’s so obviously unbalanced, whoever hired him should be ushered off campus right along with Abe. (When a teacher puts a loaded gun to his head and plays Russian Roulette at a student party, it might be time to tell the dean — and call the police.)
Allen’s script is peppered with references to Kant and Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but whether you know those names or you think it might be a trivia question about the third line for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1950s, there’s something about the cadence of the lines and the delivery of the dialogue that doesn’t feel pretentious. You get what these people are talking about even if (like yours truly) you’re not always rock-solid about the nuance and context of every exchange.
Parker Posey — and it’s kind of a surprise to realize this is the first time she’s ever been in a Woody Allen film — gives a wonderfully skewed performance as Rita, a married professor who throws herself at Abe and has an uncanny ability to narrate moments even as they’re transpiring. Abe lets her into his life mostly because he doesn’t have the energy to keep shutting her out.
Meanwhile, Emma Stone’s Jill, who’s taking Abe’s Ethical Strategies class, starts falling for Abe before she’s even met him. It’s only a matter of time before she’s gushing to her parents and her boyfriend about Abe’s tragic past, and Abe’s amazing observations about life, and Abe Abe Abe ABE.
Still, Abe remains surly, self-loathing and incapable of appreciating his intellectual prowess, the attention of these women, his cushy job or even the simple and gorgeous beauty of the town. (This is literally one of the sunniest and brightest films Allen has ever directed. Newport couldn’t have commissioned a more inviting commercial.)
Abe seems on the brink of self-destruction — until, by sheer happenstance, he becomes aware of a terrible injustice, and he leaps to an insane but to his mind perfectly logical solution: He’ll commit a murder, and by doing so, he’ll make the world a slightly better place.
And just like that, Abe is practically clicking his heels as he bounces around town (to the sounds of “The In Crowd” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio) stalking his prey. He’s so exhilarated by the planning of this crime that the rest of his world opens up, and he allows himself to fall in love.
At times “Irrational Man” crams in too many voice-overs, and asks us to take leaps of faith that seem like a stretch even for a twisted satire. The town is so cloistered, if this were an M. Night Shyamalan movie, the big reveal would be there’s no life beyond the town’s borders.
So be it. After a late wobble or two, “Irrational Man” packs a final, farcical punch that feels just right.