Movie Review: “Irrational Man”

Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley
Woody Allen

Woody Allen is the ballplayer of filmmakers. He probably takes more swings than any other writer-director working today, so when he misses, even badly, they often go unnoticed. That was certainly the case with his 2014 film, “Magic in the Moonlight,” a lifeless romantic comedy that wasted the talent of its two stars. Allen’s latest movie, “Irrational Man,” is all about life and the pain that comes with it, and though it isn’t quite a homerun, it’s a solid double down the line that ranks as one of the director’s funnier and more engaging character studies.

Everyone likes Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) except Abe Lucas. His students and peers consider the philosophy professor to be mysterious, intriguing and sexy, but he has nothing going for himself since his wife left him and his best friend passed away. One of his students, Jill (Emma Stone), takes an interest in Abe and all his misery, as does a lonely professor named Rita (Parker Posey), but despite being romantically pursued by a young girl and a gorgeous woman, Abe remains a Debbie Downer. One day, though, his whole attitude and outlook on life changes when Abe and Jill overhear a conversation at a diner. Without spoiling it, the conversation gives him a reason to stop talking about making a change in the world and actually make one, and convinced of his newfound sense of purpose, Abe only becomes more lost than he already was.

Abe Lucas is one of Allen’s more unlikable protagonists. He drinks and drives, sleeps with a married woman, and his mission ultimately makes him something of a monster, although a very real and human monster. Abe’s lesson to his students is to accept your flaws and embrace your selfish desire; at the expense of others, he’ll do whatever it takes to survive. This all sounds very vague, but like “Midnight in Paris,” the turn in Abe Lucas’ journey is surprising, and it’s best to experience it blind.

“Irrational Man” is all about that one decision Allen’s protagonist makes. It’s thin on plot, and for the most part, it lives or dies by its payoff. Thankfully, the ending is remarkable – a darkly funny scene and moment of ironic justice that only further illuminates Abe’s misguided choice. If an audience member isn’t along for the ride, though, “Irrational Man” will be a tough watch, as most of its running time is compromised of naïve characters questioning why their lives are the way they are, as they continue to make bad choices. These are dumb, smart characters – intellectuals who believe they understand life, but are very bad at living their own. It’s all very funny, relatable and honest, but obviously, this kind of structure, one filled with discussions about philosophy and life, isn’t for everyone.

“Irrational Man” is also among Allen’s more cinematic films. While the stilted camerawork and aesthetic choices helped deflate “Magic in the Moonlight,” Allen and his DP, the wonderful Darius Khondji (“The Immigrant”), paint a picture that’s perfectly suited for Abe Lucas: sunny, wide compositions that are not without darkness. The shots of Abe at the beach, especially when he’s framed in a silhouette, have an almost haunting quality to them. He’s a dark character who believes that he’s found enlightenment.

In the future, critics and fans will probably point to “Irrational Man” as one of Allen’s more revealing films. Abe Lucas isn’t wildly different from a lot of Allen’s characters, but the writer-director digs under his skin, really questioning why he is the way that he is. One could interpret Lucas as a conduit for Allen exploring his own troubled personal history, but that’s not as important as the fact that Allen made a good movie, one that entertains from beginning to end.