In the manner of Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” I was shocked — shocked! — to find so much dialogue in a modern-day movie. But then “Irrational Man” is a Woody Allen venture and, apparently, Allen is unaware, or has chosen to ignore, that couples today do not talk incessantly with each other the way his characters have been doing for decades.
In today’s world, two people in love barely speak, instead they fiddle with their phones to show each other YouTube cat videos and perhaps text their ardor. In “Irrational Man,” it’s all verbal and face-to-face. People stroll instead of power walk, they carry heavy books purchased in brick-and-mortar bookstores and quote the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. They meet up in non-Starbucks venues and eat carb-laden meals. Allen is convinced such people exist in the real world — maybe they do, but I’ve not seen them, or perhaps part of Allen’s charm is simply being out of touch with reality.
Allen also likes to dip into his own prolific filmography for inspiration — something you will either find charmingly nostalgic or plain annoying. “Irrational Man” borrows freely from “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) and “Matchpoint” (2005), two works featuring privileged protagonists who commit murder, and then struggle with their consciences.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||95 mins|
In “Irrational Man,” Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a neurotic, depressed philosophy professor invited to teach at a Rhode Island liberal university for the summer. Let’s forget for a moment that these days many U.S. universities are actually slashing philosophy from the curriculum, if not entire humanities departments. In this Allenesque setting, people ponder the meaning of life and discuss it with varying degrees of cool cynicism and heated passion as if they all walked off the set of “Downton Abbey.”
Abe is a pudgy, morose guy, wearing his mid-life crisis like a ratty T-shirt he can’t bear to throw out.
“I can’t write. I can’t breathe,” he whines in the kitchen of a splendid New England house, and he toys with notions of suicide. “I couldn’t find a reason to live, and when I did it wasn’t convincing,” is just one in an array of downer zingers Abe spews to anyone who will listen, and to women in particular.
On planet Allen, the depressed meandering of male mid-lifers often becomes the ultimate turn-on for intelligent and independent women. So, naturally, there are two in “Irrational Man” who just can’t leave Abe alone. Almost as soon as he arrives, he’s approached in a none-too-subtle way by science professor Rita (Parker Posey). The lovely and starry-eyed student Jill (Emma Stone) also makes no attempt to hide her adoration.
Unfortunately for Abe, dallying with these two impressive women is not the solution to his existential problems.
Murder, however, could be. After overhearing a conversation at a local restaurant, Abe decides to kill a perfect stranger to help out a woman he doesn’t even know. The decision is liberating for the professor. Suddenly, he straightens his back, has a smile on his face and becomes a “caveman” in bed with Rita. With the confidence of a much younger man, he even invites Jill to sleep with him (not that she needed much persuading).
Interestingly, however, the change causes Jill to back off a bit. She finds the abrupt disappearance of the moping, complaining, suicidal windbag a bit disconcerting. Rita, on the other hand, is looking for any excuse out of an unhappy marriage and so latches onto the new Abe with both hands.
But what of the murder? As is often the case with Allen’s narratives, the morality issues at work here reflect what seems to be the director’s own conviction — that conventional standards of good and evil should not be imposed on brilliant people like Abe … or himself. Let’s call it the “brilliant immunity” clause, and this kicks in fairly early in the film. It’s the only explanation why Abe, like most of Allen’s other male protagonists, gets the girl as well as the enviable job and will likely get away with anything — even murder.
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