Woody Allen may forever be thought of as a comedy director, but it has long been apparent that he has an inner Dostoevsky beneath the yocks and boffs. Of the more than forty features he’s directed, at least ten have plots built around murders. And they’re not always haha murders either: In Shadows and Fog, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream, there are few traces of humor. The 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors—still the greatest of his homicidal morality plays—may be 50 percent a comedy, but that thread doesn’t significantly intertwine with the murder story until the very end . . . and, even then, only thematically.
Note that the title of his new Irrational Man includes neither “an” or “the,” as if to assert that “man” is being used in the sense of “mankind” rather than the character—philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix)—at the story’s center. (On the other hand, the title may simply be a nod to William Barrett’s venerable 1958 book on existentialism.)
The movie opens with Abe arriving at Braylin College in Newport, Rhode Island, to teach a summer course. Abe is famous . . . for a philosopher, that is. The world of academia buzzes with tributes to his brilliance and gossip about his sex life.
At first, nobody realizes that the gossip is out of date: Abe is a burnt-out case, impotent in every sense of the word, with barely the spiritual strength to get himself out of bed, let alone to get someone else into it. Luckily (maybe), Rita (Parker Posey)—a chemistry professor bored with her life in general and her marriage in particular—has enough energy to blast past Abe’s passivity and into the boudoir, if not into a consummation of passion.
The only presence at Braylin to engage him is his student Jill (Emma Stone), who is no less smitten than Rita. Abe enjoys walking and talking with her but steadfastly rejects her more intimate advances, for reasons both ethical (their age difference) and practical (the college prohibition on teachers and students getting quite so close).
Besides: Abe truly has neither the energy nor the motivation . . . until . . . one day he and Jill overhear a stranger complaining to her friends about the family court judge who is ruining her life. Abe is inspired to take action on her behalf—extreme, criminal action. The prospect of this “good deed” relights his inner spark.
His new excitement also tears down his resistance to Jill, who thinks she is responsible for his 180.
In other Allen films, the heroes have had some powerful personal reasons to embrace the ultimate transgression. But, even though Abe frequently cites the injustice he’ll be remedying, here it’s almost a pure existential act. The story and the themes are initially Crime and Punishment in modern drag, before the plot spins off in another direction.
With a few exceptions—for instance, Kenneth Branagh and Larry David—Allen’s films have always been perfectly cast, and Phoenix brings to the part a couple of decades of playing both the obsessed and the stultifyingly stoned. He helps keep the movie engrossing, but Irrational Man nonetheless can’t measure up to Crimes and Misdemeanors and some other earlier Allen treatments of the same theme.
Some tangential good news: Allen has finally done a soundtrack almost devoid of music from the ’30s and ’40s. Irrational Man’s score is dominated by the more contemporary Ramsey Lewis tracks “The In Crowd” and “Wade in the Water” . . . both of which are only fifty years old.