Movie review: Irrational Man is Woody Allen at his unfunniest

The new Woody Allen movie is a morality play that looks at a philosophy professor who wants to commit the perfect murder. The result isn’t very interesting, and not at all funny


Irrational Man

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey

Directed and written by: Woody Allen

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Running time: 96 minutes

By Jay Stone

Woody Allen’s new film, Irrational Man, begins not with the familiar sounds of George Gershwin or Dixieland jazz, but rather with the Ramsey Lewis Trio playing the sprightly The In Crowd. This is Allen being modern. Furthermore, it’s not set in in the familiar nostalgia of Manhattan, or even in one of the other world cities — London, Paris, Barcelona — where Allen has travelled recently seeking money to make his movies. Irrational Man is set in Providence, R.I. This is Allen being practical.

This, then, is a new Woody Allen and frankly, you can have him. Irrational Man is itself a sort of sprightly murder story, a light-hearted thriller that strains to look at the serious question of how a man can regain control of his own life. Like many older artists, Allen (who’s 79) is slowly become more austere in his later work: in his case, he’s leaving behind all of the humour and much of the enjoyment.

Irrational Man has a comic tone, but no actual comedy. It’s a strange hybrid of philosophical treatise and campus melodrama, a rather dull examination of some high-falutin’ questions that Allen used to employ as fodder for laughs. Allen is a first rate comedian but a second-hand philosopher and the insights of Irrational Man are hardly worth the trouble.

Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is the new philosophy professor at small, leafy Braylin College, and his arrival excites much gossip. “He’ll put some Viagra into the philosophy department,” one teacher predicts, but it turns out that the philosophy department may have to put some into him. He arrives depressed, isolated and loaded down with a bottle of Scotch and a potbelly. There are snippets of ethical concerns — when is it permissible to lie? — in his classes, but you don’t get the feeling his heart is in it.

Nonetheless, Abe excites the emotions of Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), the wide-eyed young student who falls in love with his mind and his rebellion and eventually with him, although you never really see why. “Are you having one of your morbid insights into the transient nature of human joy?,” she asks as he mopes around a fair, looking stricken, and you can’t help but wonder if Allen, too, has become overly obsessed with death, or at least with what someone calls “post-war French rationalizing.”

The idea of a professor and his student being together is treated with some hesitation in the movie, but eventually it’s seen as just part of university life. The older man-younger woman coupling is one of the few themes that has survived Allen’s evolving career.

Abe is also stalked by Rita Richards (indie legend Parker Posey, looking like the slightly older sister of Evangeline Lilly, the love interest of Ant-Man, for what it’s worth), a teacher at the college who’s looking for some excitement in her life. Abe has the sole advantage of being unfamiliar.

The plot kicks into gear with a Patricia Highsmith twist: Abe overhears some women talking about a corrupt judge and — strictly based on that unsubstantiated gossip — wonders if it would be a good idea to kill him. It would be the perfect murder, and he makes notes about the plan in his copy of Crime and Punishment, in case we miss the point.

It’s an existential dilemma, or so we’re told, that unfolds in a neverland of Allen’s imagination where students work diligently on assignments, no one has a cell phone, and the Internet is some kind of novelty research tool of last resort. That it holds together at all is a tribute to his undeniable facility as a filmmaker — the world of Irrational Man is glum but absorbing — and the fact no one else is making movies that examine such questions, however trivially.

But I still liked it better when he was funny.

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Review: Irrational Man is Woody Allen at his most pretentious

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Irrational Man: The new Woody Allen film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a depressed philosophy professor and Emma Stone and Parker Posey as the women who love him anyway. The story — can a perfect murder bring the excitement of life to the killer? — is oddly banal and although it's told with a light tone, is entirely humourless. 2 stars out of 5 _ Jay Stone

2 Replies to "Movie review: Irrational Man is Woody Allen at his unfunniest"

  • catchwordediting July 25, 2015 (4:45 pm)

    So good to read your reviews again, Jay.

    • Jay Stone July 25, 2015 (6:45 pm)

      Thanks Jenny. Looks like you’ve become a regular reader. Welcome aboard!

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