Woody Allen’s Irrational Man Shouldn’t Work, But It (Kinda) Does

Photo: Sabrina Lanto/W.A.S.P.

Woody Allen’s philosophical thriller Irrational Man is irrationally entertaining. It shouldn’t work. It’s laughably plotted and sketchily written. Intellectually, it’s jejune — or at least high in jejunosity. But if you can manage to keep your eye-rolling in check, you might find yourself getting into it. Allen seems genuinely turned on by this crime-and-punishment fantasy and its erotic trappings, and his engagement carries you along. The Woodman has written and directed so many films so quickly that he has achieved a rare fluency: He makes remarkably smooth stilted movies.

Joaquin Phoenix plays the protagonist, a piece of casting even riskier than Owen Wilson’s in Midnight in Paris. Can Phoenix — with his halting Method affect and slurry diction — embody Abe, a brilliant, alcoholic philosophy professor experiencing Kierkegaard’s “terror of freedom” while simultaneously commenting on it? Not convincingly — but compellingly. So compellingly that he doesn’t need to be convincing, only to allow us to marvel at how he gets his tongue around lines that begin, “You know, Simone de Beauvoir pointed out, quite correctly...” (I was groaning so loudly I didn’t catch what de Beauvoir quite correctly pointed out.) The dialogue in the early scenes sounds as if it were translated from the Norwegian, but Phoenix rattles it off as if he really grasps its implications. As ever, he’s all in.

I think Allen loves identifying with this pointy-head, even after the professor loses his moral bearings. After all, Abe is at an age — mid-forties — when he can get away with fucking the effervescent Emma Stone in shorty dresses as a student named Jill, who flips over his charismatic torment to the point where she can’t wait to tear his clothes off. She’s every older intellectual’s fantasy groupie. When the pair overhears a woman in a café — a mother battling for custody of her child — bewail the corruption of the judge hearing the case, Abe’s decision (which he doesn’t share with Jill) to murder that judge has a further aphrodisiacal effect on both the character and director. Abe is no longer sexually impotent. Woody picks up the pace. The movie snaps into focus. Proclaiming in voice-over that his life suddenly has meaning, Abe evokes the Michael Caine of Hannah and Her Sisters who cries, “I have my answer!” when he hears that his wife’s sister has feelings for him. It’s the stuff that would shock Allen’s parents that makes his characters feel like existential heroes.

Spouting maxims about limitless freedom, Abe becomes a clown after committing murder, but Allen’s attitude toward the crime is morally neutral, leaning toward sympathy. Irrational Man begins with an overview of an unjust society in which the architects of the Iraq war remain unpunished — which suggests that, relatively speaking, the killing of a judge who might ruin many lives can be viewed as a righteous act. Although Allen is careful not to make the judge — seen only on his morning runs and drinking coffee on a park bench — an obvious scoundrel, he doesn’t do anything to make you grieve over the loss of a human life, either. The problem with committing a righteous murder is that you might get caught — and to keep from getting caught you might victimize people who don’t deserve to die. 

For all Allen’s disdain for religion and his Jewish roots, Irrational Man is the perfect springboard for Talmudic discussions — right up to its final twist, which could be seen as either a manifestation of God or random chance (à la Match Point). The climax is striking in its clumsiness. Allen long ago moved away from conventional editing, preferring to get as much as possible into lengthy single shots, and the scuffle that decides the characters’ fate is, depending on your perspective, either riotously inept or brilliantly real. It’s a discussion for your Talmudic Cinema Studies class. Allen keeps repeating the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s instrumental version of “The In Crowd” — a sign that Abe is trapped in a downward spiral or that Allen is casual about his soundtracks to the point of laziness? Another Talmudic Cinema Studies discussion! While we’re arguing, he writes and directs another movie.

It’s always fun to see which hot actors Allen will cast next. After a fling with Scarlett Johansson, he has moved on to Stone, who makes her character’s earnestness so vivid you can’t even laugh at a line in her narration like, “And yet a dark cloud had crossed the moon ...” (Irrational Man has several narrators — it’s talk-heavy.) Parker Posey has a super creepy part as a married chemistry professor who comes on to Abe like a ravenous ghost. She’s dark, wraithlike, painfully intense — maybe too intense for the movie. But that’s Posey. As she proved a few years ago on Louie, she has no time to make her characters “likable.” She shares their tunnel vision. She’s ready for the big ones now: Lady M, Medea, any Strindberg woman. She’d be a hell of a Mia Farrow, come to think of it.