Woody Allen is a true filmmaking marvel. This guy’s not only still writing and directing at age 79, but he’s come out with a new movie almost every year since the 70’s. With so many movies in his library, not every one of them can be a masterpiece. For every Blue Jasmine or Midnight in Paris, there’s going to be a couple films that are just all right. Of course “all right” by Woody Allen’s standards is still pretty good. If another filmmaker had made some of his lesser films, they’d probably be hailed as original and witty. Allen has set the bar so high for himself, however, that people constantly crave the next Annie Hall. Irrational Man may not be a great Wooden Allen picture, but it an entertaining little footnote in his illustrious career.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe Lucas, a pretentious philosophy professor who’s tired of teaching, people and life. The only individuals he maintains human contact with are Parker Posey’s Rita, with whom he’s having an affair, and Emma Stone’s Jill, with whom he also eventually has an affair. Seeking meaning in life, the suicidal Abe overhears a group of people discussing a corrupt judge. Abe comes to the conclusion that the world would be a better place without this judge and decides to murder him. The plot goes off without a hitch and Abe suddenly feels rejuvenated, but Jill starts to suspect her boyfriend/professor of foul play.
While there isn’t really any mystery to Irrational Man, it is a ton of fun observing the cocky Abe try to stay one step ahead of the authorities and his suspicious lover in a game of Clue. Almost getting caught gives Abe a sick thrill and the audience shares the same guilty pleasure being in his shoes. At one point, he may even convince you that there is such a thing as a perfect murder and justified murder. When Abe’s secret finally starts to unravel, however, his principles are truly put to the test and we begin to reconsider whether or not to root for him.
At times the screenplay goes overboard with its narration, almost feeling like a philosophical lecture on morality. Allen’s dialog is so engaging, though, that you can’t help but get sucked in by every word his characters say. Phoenix and Stone additionally bring great charm to their roles, despite the fact that one of them is an apathetic sociopath. While the result isn’t anything extraordinary, it is a consistently entertaining combination of black comedy, farce and a few other unlikely inspirations.
The film’s focus on an isolated man searching for purpose by killing an authority figure is almost reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Abe and Jill’s numerous conversations about the ethics of murder also call to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. For all the unusual parallels it draws, Irrational Man maintains Allen’s signature touch from start to finish. Come to think of it, Allen has delved into the macabre quite often with films like Manhattan Murder Mystery and Scoop. For somebody who’s best known for directing romantic comedies, Allen’s a surprisingly grim fellow, isn’t he?