Irrational Man

Woody Allen's ridiculous take on Strangers on a Train

Irrational Man

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Written and directed by Woody Allen. Starring Emma Stone, Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Ben Rosenfield, Ethan Phillips, Meredith Hagner, David Aaron Baker, Gary Wilmes, Sophie von Haselberg, Tom Kemp.

After the entirely underwhelming Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen has returned with an equally underwhelming effort in Irrational Man.

The director – who has tirelessly put out a film every year for almost his entire career – is bound to have a dud or two here and there but a late-career high streak started by Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine has been officially halted.

Both Moonlight and Irrational Man star Emma Stone (who may have replaced Scarlett Johansson as the director’s muse of choice) and both tread an uneasy line between broad comedy and romantic drama. The director’s best films work in both genres; these two work in neither.

Both films, however, contain a pretty great premise. Moonlight was about a psychic debunker who suddenly begins to believe in the latest spiritualist that he ought to be debunking – just as, not coincidentally, he begins to fall in love with her.

Here, bored and impotent college professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) and student/friend/possible love interest Jill (Emma Stone) accidentally overhear a sob story in a diner and the wheels in Abe’s brain are suddenly set in motion. The woman may not be able to help herself, but maybe Abe – a complete stranger – can do something good on her behalf.

It’s the classic Strangers on a Train setup, with the twist that there’s only one stranger, and he’s motivated by vigilantism. Oh, and the whole thing is ridiculous.

The unknown woman is about to lose her kids in a custody battle because the judge is friendly with her husband, and Abe suddenly plots to kill the judge to help her win the case. Possibly win the case. There are a million more convincing reasons to be motivated to kill someone that Allen could have chosen, and just like his last film, this key plot point is completely out of character for his lead character.

That lead, however, is the best thing that Irrational Man has going for it. Phoenix – always good – has packed on a few pounds in the form of an unsightly beer gut and gives his college professor an awkward social grace yet a compelling classroom presence. He’s so convincing in this role I could swear having been taught by this guy while in college. 

While the murder plot is the most interesting thing about Irrational Man, it only gets about twenty minutes of screen time. The rest of the film is relationship stuff following Abe’s friendship-romance with Stone’s Jill, his affair with fellow professor Rita (Parker Posey), and Jill’s pairing with classmate Roy (Jamie Blackley).

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The scenes between Posey and Phoenix are excellent: both deliver complex, fully-developed characters whose goals and ambitions (or lack thereof) should lead them to interesting places. In a better movie, anyway.  

The scenes between Stone and Blackley, meanwhile, are just about intolerable. Thankfully, there are only a handful of them.

The flaw of Irrational Man – one of them, anyway – is that it wants to identify more with Jill than with Abe, even though Phoenix’s character is infinitely more interesting. This leads to a resolution that could charitably be called clumsy; it drew audible guffaws at a recent press screening.

Irrational Man, especially in its climactic scenes, makes for a nice comparison to Match Point. In that film, Allen displayed immaculate control of the plotting and characters, carefully manipulating our rooting interest along the way. Here, the director simply loses control of his movie as it rides off the rails. 

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