4 out of 10
Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas
Directed by Woody Allen
Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) has just arrived at a new school in Rhode Island where his moody demeanor immediately captures the interest of one of his students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone). As they get closer, Lucas has an epiphany that if he was able to rid the world of a bad person he can achieve a level of enlightenment that can turn his life around.
As much as I’m a life-long Woody Allen enthusiast and as much as I would love it if every movie of his was better than the last one, he’s become so erratic and unpredictable lately in terms of which movies work and which ones don’t. I usually like his comedies and even better the ones in which he appears, but when he sh*ts the bed, to put it quite bluntly, it’s a disastrous mess.
Make no mistake that Irrational Man is a mess, partially because Allen doesn’t have a particularly interesting story or character in Joaquin Phoenix’s Abe Lucas, a moody, temperamental alcoholic, constantly spouting philosophy and making himself seem so repulsive that you wonder why any woman would fall for him. Granted, Abe has had a tough life with his wife having an affair with his best friend and another friend (or at least we assume it’s a different one) being killed in Iraq. And yet, he has a doe-eyed co-ed named Jill (Emma Stone) telling anyone who will listen (including her frustrated boyfriend Roy) about how great Abe. It’s the sort of opening that makes it seem like you’re in for a sappy romantic comedy, one of Allen’s more reliable genres, but also one that sets itself up to divide audiences.
The main issue is that Abe’s demeanor is such a downer at the beginning that you wonder why every woman is throwing themselves at him. At one point, he goes to a frat party with Jill and for laughs shows her classmates how to play Russian Roulette with a loaded gun. Jill acts as if it’s no big deal because it’s just Abe acting like his usual eccentric author self, but it immediately becomes an analogy for how Woody Allen plays Roulette with the audience for his movies when you never know whether the barrel is loaded.
If that Russian Roulette scene wasn’t ludicrous enough, things really start to go overboard when Abe and Jill are sitting in a diner – she’s still throwing herself at him as he fends off her advances. She overhears a group of people at a neighboring booth and convinces Abe to listen in, as we’re forced to listen to a lengthy monologue from a tearful woman about an awful judge named Judge Thomas Spangler who is going to give custody of her kids to her ex-husband. Abe comes away from eavesdropping on that conversation deciding that if he can kill this judge, it would help end this woman’s misery. With no connection to anyone involved, he feels he can get away with it without getting caught with the knowledge he’s done something good for someone. From there, Abe goes through a startling change as he stops drinking and starts getting into better spirits.
Maybe I’ve just reached my limit with Joaquin Phoenix’s anti-Hollywood shenanigans or maybe he just isn’t as good an actor as we thought, because he brings very little to Abe beyond what we’ve seen him do in other movies, most notably the abhorrent Inherent Vice. Similarly, anyone who has been questioning Emma Stone’s decisions of late will immediately realize how much better she was in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (which is, in fact, a better movie despite its many problems). Jill is just another case of a poorly-developed female character who has little to do beyond boosting the male ego. (I realize that Woody’s last movie Magic in the Moonlight isn’t his most popular film either, but I got a lot more enjoyment seeing Stone playing off Colin Firth in a period setting.)
Twenty years ago, I would have thought that having Parker Posey starring in a Woody Allen movie would be absolute magic, but she’s well past her prime now and not very good here, giving a quirky erratic performance that does little to make up for the character as the one Stone is playing.
Things just get progressively worse with a lot of overacting, especially when Jill discovers the truth and is suddenly not nearly as interested in Abe as she was earlier. It’s not like the film features Allen’s most inspired dialogue either. From the very beginning, Allen uses a frustrating first-person narrative, first from Phoenix and then Stone and then bouncing back and forth between them, giving the movie the feel of a cheesy ‘50s True Romance comic.
There’s a lot of other silliness, like random conversations Jill has with everyone she runs into about the mysterious death of this judge, including a friend introduced merely to add even more exposition. They meet on the street and one of them suggests they go horseback riding sometime. Cut to the two of them riding horseback together for absolutely no reason – there’s no further dialogue, just more voice-over and then we’ve moved onto another scene. Meanwhile, we already know what Abe has done, so we’re watching a lot people sitting and talking about the judge as if it’s the most shocking thing ever and throwing around theories of what happened.
The oddest thing about Irrational Man is watching Woody Allen trying to make a contemporary movie partially involving younger people, because the movie’s lack of smartphones or even cell phones just makes it obvious how completely out of touch Allen is with real people.
Woody Allen’s filmmaking forté has never been the music he uses for his movies and this is worst case scenario where the chosen tune is an incredibly inappropriate piano tune that sounds like the theme from “Peanuts,” used over and over even during the darker moments when it’s not appropriate. After this ditty is played for the fourth or fifth time, you night start wishing that Abe would kill the piano player. Not surprisingly, there isn’t a music supervisor listed for the movie, and given Allen’s musical aptitude, one presumes he just makes these bad decisions with his editor.
While I hate it when Allen makes a movie I just can’t get into, this may be his worst effort since Cassandra’s Dream, and if you’re asking “Which movie is that?” then that gives you some idea how erratic Allen has become as a filmmaker when only one of every five of his movies makes much of an impact or gets any attention.
The Bottom Line:
With a confounding plot that gets more aggravating as the characters get more annoying, this may be one of Woody Allen’s most ridiculous movies to date.