Stop me, oh, oh-o, stop me
Stop me if you think
That you’ve heard this one before
If you think that you’ve heard, or seen, Woody Allen’s latest film, IRRATIONAL MAN, before, you’re not alone. It has elements from a few of his previous outings including his 1989 film, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, and his 2005 effort, MATCH POINT. But when you’ve made as many films as he has, you do get a bit of leeway in Hollywood when it comes to being repetitive.
The film shares its title with a 1958 book by New York University philosophy professor William Barrett, which examined existential philosophy in the 20th century. In the book, a number of existential thinkers, such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre, are discussed, providing a primary overview of their thoughts on the subject. Like the book, the movie flirts with these notables, bandying about the nuances of their philosophies, as many of Woody Allen’s films do.
The story centers around philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix, HER), who comes to Braylin College in sunny New England to teach a summer class. The advance gossip on Lucas is positive, if not exactly flattering. The professor has a reputation for both his insightful teaching and his extra-curricular activities that usually involve young female students. In many places, the latter trait might raise a few eyebrows; at Braylin, it seems to be an attractive quality. It is, at any rate, attractive to both a married colleague, Rita Richards (Parker Posey), and to one of his students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone, BIRDMAN).
One day, while eating lunch at a local diner, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation involving a custody battle and a family court judge who shows bias against women. Abe is bothered by the apparent injustice and, without telling Jill, decides to help the woman by murdering the judge. As he doesn’t have an identifiable motive to commit the crime, he feels that he won’t be suspected. (I guess he never saw Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film, STRANGER ON A TRAIN.) Through a series of events, Abe does kill the judge and he finds the existential episode rather liberating. Abe had been in a funk of late, drinking throughout the day, not being able to complete his book, and not having mojo in the bedroom. But with the murder, it all comes flowing back. Unfortunately for Abe though, Jill has a razor sharp, analytical mind and she works out that he is the killer.
The parallels to Allen’s own life are all too obvious – the custody battle, the older man/younger woman relationship, searching for meaning in one’s life, jazz music, … Unfortunately, the story isn’t able to gather enough steam to take us to a place we’ve never been before with Allen. He has already dealt with the subjects of the perfect murder and finding meaning in previous films, and he’s done them better. But leaving all that aside, the big problem with IRRATIONAL MAN is that it can’t decide if it is a comedy or a drama. There aren’t a lot of laughs in the film and, when the story does get bogged down in existential monologues, the director tries to lighten the mood with a few bars from Ramsey Lewis’ 2013 upbeat take on the 1965 jazz classic, “The ‘In’ Crowd”. By the time the film ends, we’ve heard the tune at least a dozen times. On the plus side, the acting is solid from both Phoenix and Stone. Even Posey isn’t bad, although we’ve seen her do better work in some of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries including WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, BEST IN SHOW and FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION. (All of these are highly recommended viewing.)
As far as Woody Allen films go, this is not one of his best nor is it one of his worst. It’s right there in the middle. Fortunately for his fans (and I count myself among them), he is currently working on his 47th film, which will be released in 2016. We wait, hoping for something better than this film.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 35:30.)
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