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.