Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Woody Allen is to screenwriting what John Williams is to music or Meryl Streep is to acting; at this point he can write an Oscar-worthy screenplay in his sleep. Even if the film he makes isn’t as great or as groundbreaking as Annie Hall, Manhattan or Midnight in Paris, more often than not there will be something in it that’s worthwhile to watch. At his best Allen can offer a film that is intelligent without being pretentious, casual without being dull, and hilarious without being silly. He is very good at offering stories with original yet simple concepts and at discussing complex themes and ideas in a smart yet accessible way. Even after four decades of writing and directing great and innovative films, he is still able to find new and interesting stories to tell. His latest offering Irrational Man is not one of his best but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to enjoy or to get drawn into. Even when he’s being generic Allen is still able to craft a smart and enjoyable film that is well worth watching.
The story of Irrational Man is told from the perspectives of Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), a tortured philosophy professor whose turbulent life and radically pessimistic ideas have rendered him without any sense of purpose or motivation in life, and Jill (Emma Stone), an eager philosophy student who is drawn and attracted to Abe’s brilliant mind and tormented psyche. They form a bond with each other that appeals to both Abe’s bleak search for meaning and to Jill’s romanticised desires. Their escapades eventually lead them to a chance encounter that invigorates a new sense of purpose into Abe’s life. He is suddenly presented with an objective that awakens a long-forgotten sense of passion and enthusiasm; it is a purpose that is in and of itself both misguided and depraved (and yes, irrational as well) but which he nevertheless pursues with a newfound sense of fulfilment.
The film for the most part is typical Woody Allen. The characters often engage each other in debates on philosophy but do so in ways that don’t feel dull or ostentatious. Allen has never been one for self-indulgence; he merely depicts clever characters who discuss intellectual topics in ways that feels nonchalant and natural. Irrational Man is no different. The film also contains that Woody Allen quirkiness that allows him to depict a story with quite a twisted concept in a laidback and comedic way. Phoenix has pretty much made his name playing eccentric and unstable characters and so Abe naturally fits him like a glove. He is able to play the character in the erratic and unhinged manner that he knows how to do well and the chemistry he shares with Stone feels authentic and sincere. Stone for her part does well playing a capable yet credulous student whose romanticised inclinations are just as misguided as Abe’s resolute purpose.
However, as much as I enjoyed this film, I still don’t think it rates as one of Allen’s best. There are parts when I felt the dialogue was too on-the-nose and I felt that narrations of both of the main characters were for the most part unnecessary. Allen’s greatest strength is usually his dialogue but oftentimes he can be accused of taking it too far by stating things that simply don’t need to be stated (or at least don’t need to be stated directly). I was also somewhat off-put by Parker Poesy’s character Rita, who I felt was out of place in this story. I wasn’t sure what point her character was meant to serve and her inclusion felt more like an afterthought to me. I do think that Posey played the character just fine, I just don’t think her presence really brought anything to the story. Jamie Blackley at least has a clear role to serve as Roy, Jill’s all-round decent boyfriend who becomes jealous and even hurt by her growing attachment to Abe. His role doesn’t amount to much more than that, but at least its something.
This film may for the most part be a generic Woody Allen film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Allen remains one of the most gifted and intelligent screenwriters in Hollywood and so even a generic screenplay by him is going to be worthy of praise. Irrational Man offers a lot for the audience to enjoy from interesting characters to an offbeat story to intelligent and absorbing dialogue. The way that Allen is able to portray the story of a deeply disturbed man who embarks on a perverse journey in a way that comes across as reserved and quirky shows that he has still indeed got it and is in no danger of becoming inapt or irrelevant anytime soon. Irrational Man is smart, funny and engaging and is a fine addition to Woody Allen’s considerable body of work.