Irrational Man is a tale of two corpses. Joaquin Phoenix, an incredibly enigmatic and fidgety actor who can speak volumes by simply furling his brow, embodies them both with unsettling dedication. As Abe, the existentially conflicted professor at the center of Woody Allen's latest sun-drenched joint, Phoenix toes the line between creative and creep. He feels right at home as a chameleon struggling to remember exactly how he fits into the world's foliage.
Initially, Abe sulks through each frame like a forlorn mortician waiting to bury a body (possibly his own?). Upon arriving at a Rhode Island college to teach philosophy for the summer, he immediately lives up to his reputation as a cynical burnout with heavy emotional baggage. Passionate lectures about Kant and Sartre gain adornment from loving students, including Emma Stone's smart and naïve Jill. Yet deeply awkward exchanges at parties draw the ire of jealous faculty members who resent his isolationist tendencies.
The irony? Despite resembling the walking dead, Abe has already achieved his finest self in being completely depressed. He just doesn't know it yet. All of this doom and gloom has instilled in him a moral compass, albeit one that is slightly askew. He resists when Jill wants to begin an affair, understanding that this arrangement would be bad news for both parties. Abe may be a self-loathing sod, but he's at least a self-aware one.
Halfway through the film, though, Abe and Jill overhear a fateful conversation at a diner about a corrupt local judge shuffling the deck in a custody case. Abe interprets this as a sign, an opportunity to make the world a better place by committing a violent act against a seemingly deserving individual. Thinking about murder reinvigorates Abe; he's no longer impotent emotionally or physically and feels inspired to write poetry again. Except this is a Woody Allen film, and whenever a character feels this jolly about murder there's only one conceivable outcome.
The second part of Irrational Man shoots for a darker tone, waxing eloquently about the futility of control in even the most certain circumstances. Watching Abe's "perfect murder" fall apart is a thing of expected comeuppance, less tense than pre-ordained. The film ends up feeling like a cross between Match Point and Scoop, morbidly dark yet brightly cloying. That's a really strange combination, even by Woody standards.
It's hard not to admire Irrational Man for suggesting that a standard redemptive narrative arc can be turned inside out. Abe's downfall stems from his desire to finally take direct action, usually an indicator of a character's betterment. Allen celebrates the notion that becoming an active participant in society is entirely defined by your own warped perspective. So is Abe's a case of delusion run amok or simply of one's true character being revealed and promptly destroyed by the universe? The viewer remains judge, jury and executioner.
After the delightful and intoxicating Magic in the Moonlight, Allen's latest feels trite by comparison, like a rushed doodle with very little on its mind except simply existing. The dialogue is typically snappy and verbose, but the film lacks for visual flair. It's also tonally indecisive; if you're going to make a tragedy about the manipulation of philosophy why not provide a more foreshadowing along the way?
Irrational Man, which opens Friday, July 24, has dueling narrators (both Abe and Jill), suggesting some connection between their respective experiences. Yet the brutally frank finale is one of many aesthetic choices that are haphazardly made to complicate the characters on purely a surface level. The most interesting element of the film—that Abe punches his own ticket the second he becomes happy—is less important to Allen than once again discussing the banality of evil and the futility of ideology. He's officially going through the motions.
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