• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Non-Review Review: Irrational Man

If Blue Jasmine could be read as an adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, Woody Allen continues his journey through classic cinema (and novels and plays) with Irrational Man. The core of Irrational Man is built around the basic premise of Strangers on a Train, exploring the strange intersection of lives around a seemingly motiveless murder plot. Using the plot of Strangers on a Train as a springboard, Allen staged Irrational Man as a character study (very loosely) framed discussion of ethics and moral philosophy.

Set in a small-town New England college campus, Allen strips Patricia Highsmith’s novel down to its core elements. As with a lot of late-stage Woody Allen films, there is not so much a plot as a set of complications. The story is streamlined so as to allow a depth of focus on its central characters; murder is not swapped so much as volunteered, meaning that Irrational Man only has to focus on a single murder and its impact on a single set of characters. In this case, Allen focuses on Professor Abe Lucas and his student Jill Pollard.

Murder on the mind...

Murder on the mind…

Lucas is depressed and withdrawn; he is a philosopher who has lived a long and varied life, but who seems numbed by the experience. Lucas is not necessarily suicidal, but it doesn’t seem like he’d be too upset by the prospect of his own death. As fellow faculty member Rita Richards and bright young student Jill Pollard try to pull the philosopher out of his depression, a conversation overheard in a diner lights a spark. Listening to a stranger detail the injustices inflicted upon her, Lucas decides to set about righting wrongs on her behalf.

Irrational Man builds to a decidedly academic murder plot. It is very much “Woody Allen presents How to Get Away With Murder.”

"Voila Davis always gets higher student approval ratings."

“Voila Davis always gets higher student approval ratings.”

On the surface, Irrational Man asks a whole host of familiar questions about morality. If somebody’s death has the net effect of making the world a better place, can it be justified? Does the quandary become any easier if the person in question has no tangible connections to the world, if there is no appreciable loss that might be measured against the tangible gains? These are stock ethical dilemmas; and Irrational Man doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about them.

There is a sense that the philosophy element of Irrational Man is all just a distraction; it is cinematic sleight of hand. Pollard’s opening monologue informs us that Lucas has a way with words, and the philosophical framework of Irrational Man is nothing more than a way for Lucas to justify his decision. Lucas seems to ask whether it is ever justifiable to murder a stranger in a premeditated fashion, couching his argument in references to European philosophers. Irrational Man offers a fairly unambiguous answer.

A most dangerous game...

A most dangerous game…

The answer, it seems, is “hell no.” In fact, the film never seems too bothered with engaging with Lucas’ philosophical meandering; the script makes it quite clear that murder is intrinsically and undeniably wrong, even if there are not citations to back it up. “Murder just opens the door to more murder,” one character suggests at one point, and the film wholeheartedly endorses this position. It seems quite strange how much effort Irrational Man puts into rebutting Lucas’ attempts to justify premeditated murder; it almost feels like the script protests too much.

Then again, Woody Allen’s script tips its hand quite early. “If you learn one thing from me,” Lucas advises his students on the first day of class, “it is that a lot of philosophy is nothing more than verbal masturbation.” Early on, Lucas is praised for his work on “situational ethics”, suggesting that his personal morality might be less than fixed. Irrational Man features a number of less than subtle references to great historical injustice. Early on, Lucas makes reference to the fate of Anne Frank; later, he scrawls “the banality of evil” in the margins of a book.

Strangers at a booth...

Strangers at a booth…

There is something quite frustrating about all this. As with Magic in the Moonlight, it feels like the entire script of Irrational Man is built around a very flimsy premise that cannot necessarily sustain the weight afforded to it. Irrational Man almost treats the idea that murder might be wrong as a profound revelation. Allen is one of the most prolific writers and directors working in the business, but it occasionally feels like some his projects might benefit from a slower pace or a tighter rewrite.

Still, there are quite a few elements of Irrational Man that work. As much as the philosophical framework of the movie is a red herring, Irrational Man works a lot better as a character study. On many levels, Joaquin Phoenix is a strange choice for a Woody Allen protagonist. Some of his performance choices are more than a little eccentric; given the importance of dialogue in a Woody Allen film, Phoenix’s tendency to mumble and murmur feels like it does not play to the strengths of the material. However, the performance largely works on its own terms.

Funhouse morality...

Funhouse morality…

One of the more intriguing aspects of Woody Allen’s recent output is watching the director work with diverse ensemble of leading actors; in the past decade, Allen has directed films headlined by performers as distinct as Owen Wilson and Cate Blanchett, Colin Firth and Larry David, Jesse Eisenberg and Anthony Hopkins. Allen’s writing style maintains its own idiosyncrasies, but it is always fascinating to watch those quirks filtered through an unexpected central performer.

Irrational Man plays quite well to Phoenix’s strengths. In its explorations of philosophy and murder, Irrational Man plays out as a blackly comic mid-life crisis film. Although Lucas would never describe his existentialist anxieties in such terms, Irrational Man suggests that murder appeals to him as an academic novelty; it is a taboo to be broken or a transgression to be broached by a brilliant mind that has become bored with the simpler (or more mundane) pleasures in life.

"The cops said they'd reduce the charge to assault and bantering."

“The cops said they’d reduce the charge to assault and bantering.”

Phoenix is tasked with essentially realising a charming and pathetic academic who decides to murder a stranger because it excites his academic curiosity; it is comfortable middle-class tourism into the world of random violence. It takes a very particular performer to hit all the requisite beats in a plot like that. Phoenix might not enunciate Allen’s dialogue as clearly as the film requires, but he does an excellent job blending a number of recurring Woody Allen archetypes into a surprisingly cohesive central performance.

There is something interesting about how skilfully Irrational Man hybridises two distinct strands of Woody Allen thought into a single protagonist. Allen’s work has dealt with murder and death for quite some time. Murder is a theme in Allen’s work dating back to Crimes and Misdemeanors and beyond; it was a central part of his twenty-first century revival with the release of Match Point taking many viewers by surprise. With Irrational Man, Allen segues these mordid meditations back towards a more stereotypical Woody Allen protagonist.

"I was dead right, all along!"

“I was dead right, all along!”

Emma Stone is just as reliable as Jill Pollard, cast in the role of the movie’s voice of reason. Pollard could easily become a thankless role; a very simply moral lesson in a script that already leans towards the didactic. However, it is to the credit of Stone that Pollard seems like a compelling and intriguing character in her own right. The script positions Pollard as a less dynamic lead than Lucas, but Stone holds her own against Phoenix; she captures Pollard’s arc perfectly, from the stereotypical naive muse to the more mature young woman.

Irrational Man has no shortage of issues. As with a lot of Woody Allen films, it is messy; it just happens that Irrational Man is messy in some of the wrong ways. The structuring of the movie’s philosophical themes doesn’t feel as tight as it needs to be, and the ending feels more clumsy than clever. However, despite the movie’s somewhat heavy-handed central themes, the character work is surprisingly satisfying and it is all anchored in two credible and convincing central performances.

2 Responses

  1. Better than what we’re used to seeing from Allen, especially so late in his career. Which has to account for something, I guess. Nice review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: