*** stars ****
Most film buffs agree that Woody Allen has made good movies in the past 20 years, but they’ll often disagree about which of his recent films are the worthwhile ones. His newest effort, Irrational Man, will likely provoke similar debate among movie scholars.
Irrational Man is a companion piece to Allen efforts like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Cassandra’s Dream, and Match Point. They’re all films that deal with characters who commit murder and how they cope with the after-effects. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays a depressed philosophy professor who has just started work at a new college. He finds joy in nothing, not even the romantic advances of a colleague (Parker Posey) or the infatuation of one of his students (Emma Stone).
But about 30 minutes into the film, he overhears a woman talking about how she’ll lose custody of her children to her deadbeat husband because his lawyer is friends with the corrupt judge hearing the case. Phoenix decides that if he kills the judge and restores the children to the parent who deserves them, then his life will have meaning. By acting, he’ll be accomplishing more than he ever did lecturing about philosophy in classrooms.
Once he begins planning the perfect murder, he starts enjoying life again. Everything in his world seems a little brighter and he opens himself up to new possibilities. It’s an interesting take on murder and one that not even Allen explored in the thematically similar efforts mentioned earlier. He seems to be saying that in order to get through the painful, depressing slog of life, you have to cling to something irrational. For many, that may be something like religious faith or devotion to a favorite sports team. But for Phoenix, it’s taking decisive punitive action against a bad person. Of course, questions then abound about whether it’s right to take the life of even a terrible human being and complications arise.
The film’s first act is its weakest. There are too many scenes of Phoenix giving basic philosophy lectures and too much of Stone gushing about how fascinating Phoenix is. But once Phoenix’s character decides to act, the film finds itself. The three lead performers (Phoenix, Stone, & Posey) are strong throughout. Stone, in her 2nd collaboration with Allen, is once again thoroughly charming (she’d probably have to play Hermann Goring to not be likable onscreen).
Yes, this is another Woody Allen film that features a relationship between an older man and a younger woman. But, developments in the final act give Phoenix and Stone’s relationship more complexity than other mismatched romances in Allen’s filmography. And the film does have interesting things to say about how it’s easy for people to be “moral” when morality coincides with their own self-interest, but less so when it doesn't.
Irrational Man is a flawed film, but it’s a movie that actually has something on its mind. Allen may not be firing on all cylinders anymore, but more often than not, he still makes smart movies for smart people.