Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone star in Woody Allen’s latest release
Woody Allen has a penchant for self-conscious and self-appointed intellectuals, simultaneously mocking and endearing them to his audiences. As such, it is surprising that the university campus hadn’t yet come under his scrutiny. In Irrational Man, he mixes to this end some of his usual themes – satire, murder, and doomed inter-generational romances. However, with characters too affected to be sympathetic and little humour, the film meanders without purpose.
Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a depressed philosophy professor joining the ranks of small New England college Braylin. Although he is drunk most of the time, he manages to charm colleagues and students alike – his absolute pessimism whipping up a vague mystique. Most sensitive to his appeal are his colleague Rita (Parker Posey) and his student Jill (Emma Stone). Both try to seduce him.
The story doesn’t end there. Desperate for meaning in his life, Abe finds inspiration in a conversation overheard in a diner. Could his salvation lie in helping a complete stranger? His decision sets him on an irreversible path.
Phoenix is not entirely convincing in his role. He portrays Abe’s self-absorption well, yet it is difficult to understand what his admirers find so charming about him. He lacks suaveness, which the script doesn’t give him room to develop. Stone, on the other hand, is spot-on naive, pretentious, and selfish as Jill – a perfect narrator to poke fun at the intellectual arrogance of higher-education students. However, Suzy Benzinger costumes her in rather odd, overly childish outfits.
The film doesn’t exploit its potential for humour – many of its scenes are fertile ground for laugh-out-loud moments, but these are never taken up, and the most the dialogue ever provokes is a smile. As its characters are wholly unlikable, Irrational Man soon comes to feel dull and lengthy, despite its short running time. In addition, there is much that is superfluous – there are for instance, too many shots of Abe teaching, lecturing at random on the greats of philosophy, or of Jill playing the piano. The repetitive soundtrack – a jazz piece seemingly playing on a loop – is ill fitted to the plot and does nothing to help.
At the very least, the plotline denounces the trope that women ought to attach themselves to and thereby save a man who is beyond hope. The film has sparks of wittiness in its photography – for instance, some well-placed shots in a fairground visually render the grotesque minds of its two main characters.
Otherwise, it is a pity that it all comes out so poorly – Stone and Phoenix are great actors, and the concept behind the plot is rife for comedy. Irrational Man is one of Allen’s forgettable films – but given his moments of genius, he’s easily forgiven.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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