New Woody film is sly and dark, if not totally rational

Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix star in ‘Irrational Man.’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

At one time, the release of a film by writer/director Woody Allen was a cinematic event. Those days are long past, but Allen still retains a bit of his legendary auteur director reputation with the release of more recent gems such as “Blue Jasmine.” Still, for every “Blue Jasmine,” there are several duds, such as last year’s romantic comedy “Magic in the Moonlight,” which was less than magical. 

“Irrational Man” blends elements of Dostoevsky and Alfred Hitchcock in a slyly comic tale of philosophy and murder. This film does not reach the heights of “Blue Jasmine,” but it is less egregious than “Moonlight.” 

“Irrational Man,” however, is likely to elicit responses ranging from mediocre to weird, depending on how it strikes the viewer.

In this film, philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at a Rhode Island university to teach a summer class. He is preceded by a reputation as a brilliant academic, a controversial author and a womanizer, and quickly becomes the center of faculty discussion.

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But hard-drinking Abe is in the grips of existential doldrums — “simply bored by the meaninglessness of existence,” as he says in voice-over — joyless, unable to write and suffering from impotence. Despite his lack of enthusiasm and obvious paunch, Abe draws the romantic interest of unhappily married chemistry professor Rita Edens (Parker Posey) and adoring student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone). 

The story borrows from Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (and the director’s  own “Crimes and Misdemeanors”) as well as Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” and “Shadow of a Doubt.” The dialogue is heavily peppered with discussions of Kant, Sartre and Kierkegaard.

Allen has lost none of his skill at presenting a polished looking film, and the cast is certainly talented. Stone is bright and upbeat, while Phoenix is low-key until he hits on a bizarre, irrational solution to his lack of zest for life. Posey is touching as the desperately unhappy professor who sees Abe as her way out. 

Despite all that, the film has its problems. The philosophy professor starts out in an age-appropriate romantic relationship, but that quickly changes when his platonic relationship with the young student takes a turn and leaves him balancing both women. 

Once again, Allen repeats a penchant for age-inappropriate romances. Although he is hardly alone in Hollywood in this tendency, it is something many found particularly objectionable about “Magic in the Moonlight” and mirrors Allen’s own questionable sexual history. Despite Abe’s constant talk about philosophical principles, the professor is not too strong on ethics: Carrying on with a student in a class he is teaching is a major violation. 

 But one has to wonder whether there is some ironic intention here. The philosophy professor is gripped by an angst that seems like something from an earlier era, or more appropriate for one of his students spouting standard philosophical lines. Despite Abe’s provocative reputation, no one on campus seems to notice his incessant boozing, and he is met with undiluted awe from faculty and students alike. And even though he’s out of shape and radiating indifference,  he still attracts female admiration. 

Allen is known as a brainy filmmaker and for including a character in his films who is a version of himself. Could the director be saying something about his own reputation, while at the same time peppering this film with recycled elements from literature and cinema history? 

Of course, some viewers might conclude that the recycled elements show the director has become lazy, is bereft of inspiration and is sleepwalking through this film — but that also describes the character at its center. The film’s twist takes on extra meaning if viewed through this ironic, sly lens.   

Allen’s “Irrational Man” offers some clever, dark, tongue-in-cheek entertainment if you do not takes its surface too literally, although it is hardly one of the director’s best efforts.