There are many far worse things out there, but watching “Irrational Man” is the blandest experience I have ever had from Woody Allen film since “Cassandra’s Dream” (2007). Although there are a few moments where we can get glimpses of wit and charm we can expect from Allen, the movie is tepid and uninteresting as hampered by half-baked storytelling and characterization, and I kept thinking about how memorably Allen handled similar themes and situations in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) and “Match Point” (2005), which are much better on both comic and dramatic levels compared to this utterly forgettable result.
The movie begins with its introduction of the hero who is actually not so interesting as others around him incessantly say. He is a philosophy professor named Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), and he is about to join the faculty of some small-town college in New England area. Everyone in the campus heard about him at least once, and we hear about how his life has been riddled with many unhappy things such as his journalist friend who died in Iraq or his ex-wife who left him while he was occupied with helping people during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
I wonder whether his stories are no more than rumors, but he never confirms their veracity while looking as sullen and depressed as ever in his continuing misery of, yes, existential crisis. Many philosophers including Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger are steadily mentioned or quoted as he is teaching his students or talking with other faculty members, and he also shows serious signs of alcoholism and depression. At one point, he tries Russian roulette twice in a row in front of others, and this reckless behavior of his surely freaks out everyone around him.
We also meet two women who somehow find him attractive despite the fact that he is essentially a superficial intellectual bore I would stay away from as much as possible. Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), a smart, plucky young student, becomes fascinated and infatuated with Abe as talking about him more and more, and this certainly displeases her current boyfriend. In case of Professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), Abe is the latest faculty member this libidinous married woman would love to sleep with, and it does not take much time for them to be together on his bed, though this is just a minor distraction for him.
And then one accidental incident begins to stimulate Abe to break away from his usual ennui. When he is meeting Jill at a local restaurant during one afternoon, they happen to hear the conversation among the people seating right behind them, and they come to learn about a judge who is going to pass his very unfair judgment on a custody case. Nothing can stop this judge’s decision legally, and it also seems that he has some bad career reputation due to a number of misconducts he managed to get away with.
Abe naturally comes to wonder about several moral questions as musing more on this matter later. Is it right to kill the judge to prevent the considerable unhappiness to be caused by his heartless decision? Can murder be morally or ethically justified as a solution? And, above all, can one possibly commit a murder and then remain unsuspected and free of guilt after that?
Mulling on these dark questions which remain to be on metaphysical levels at least for now, he ironically feels more alive and excited than before, and his plan for murder accordingly takes its shape in his mind step by step. As he surreptitiously watches on the judge for a while, he comes to find an ideal spot in the judge’s consistent daily routine – and he also does some research for finding a swift and efficient way to eliminate this guy.
In the meantime, Allen’s screenplay frequently goes back and forth between Abe’s and Jill’s viewpoint for making the situation look a bit lighter, but its two main storylines, which are bound to converge on a certain point, do not interact with each other much while merely proceeding in parallel, and its main characters do have enough depth or personality to be explored during this process. The movie tries some serious thoughts on its themes, but it feels lazy and shallow compared to the darker half of “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, where one of its main characters comes to arrive at a chilling conclusion after his agonizing moral conflict on murder and guilt. While the hero of “Match Point” is a callous, superficial guy, how he eventually comes to choose a drastic way to solve his troubles is very shocking and compelling to watch, and the plodding plot of “Irrational Man” lacks the cold, sharp, and ruthless narrative logic of “Match Point” in comparison.
As usual, Allen assembled talented performers for his movie, but it looks like they are in front of the camera only because they cannot resist an opportunity to work with Allen. Joaquin Phoenix can be very funny or very disturbing as shown from his contrasting performances in “The Master” (2012) and “Inherent Vice” (2014), but the movie does not utilize his comic potentials much while only making him stuck in monotonous passive-aggressive modes. Emma Stone does what she can do with her underdeveloped character, but she was much better in Allen’s previous film “Magic in the Moonlight” (2014), and Parker Posey is sadly wasted in her thankless role.
“Irrational Man” is a tedious failure on the whole, but it is sort of comforting to see that even the worst Woody Allen movies like this do not look truly awful and idiotic in their intellectual fumbles. Come to think of it, Allen already completed his next film and then had it shown at the Cannes Film Festival in this year, and my mind is ready to move onto that as leaving behind this big disappointment.