Irrational Man is the new film directed by Woody Allen, a light black comedy about Abe, a philosophy professor (Joaquin Phoenix), who is at a low point in his life. He is not fulfilled by teaching and he sees his actions as unimportant, having no effect on the world. He is having what might be defined as a philosopher’s midlife crisis. Abe takes a teaching position at the school of Jill (Emma Stone), a philosophy student and the two develop an attachment to each other. Abe is morose and without drive, his mood having enveloped all areas of his life, including his sexual performance. But after overhearing a conversation and making a definite and morally dubious decision, he returns refreshed to the surprise of the people around him.
The premise to Irrational Man is an interesting one: the difference between theory and reality, and the justifiability of one individuals actions. The film is strongest in the first twenty minutes, where the basic alphabetised white on black credits, and the well shot intimate conversations in bars and lecture rooms and outside cinemas, feels like a comfortable return to the world of Woody Allen; where interesting characters discuss art, philosophy and their own complex neuroticism’s, whilst having existential dilemmas, all underpinned with Allen’s trademark wit. For the first twenty minutes this is almost achieved and Abe’s taciturn approach to teaching and his melancholy views on life and philosophy (‘so much of philosophy is just verbal masturbation.’) often succeed in being entertaining. The introductions to the characters and the set up to the film are all enjoyable, always complimented by Allen’s choice of light jazz soundtrack. But this is as far as it ever gets, descending rapidly from there on in. This descent is as rapid and steep as Abe’s reversal in mood, as a highly simplified philosophical dilemma is stretched out over the remaining hour.
The theme and the characters are pulled so thinly across the story that it cannot go anywhere, and when it does it is impossible to care. As the central element of the story develops, Irrational Man ranges between jazz backed montages overlaid with narration, and close quarter scenes in which the shots run on in long takes. It seems to have nothing to say in the long scenes but to have entire characters whose only purpose is plot exposition. It is as if the long scenes were improvised to give the feeling of originality and spontaneity, but that there is so little material to work with, and so little depth to the characters that they can only resort to uncharacteristic displays of paper-thin emotion. At other points the narrative doesn’t even try to disguise itself, the characters have no reality other than as objects to move the plot along.
As is often the case it is the quality of the directing that is able to bring out a talented performance. Phoenix has starred in a number of highly regarded films, and Stone proved her ability in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman. But here they are appallingly bad. Eventually the film begins to repeat itself out of a lack of things to say. The narrating of emotion by Stone and Phoenix starts to mean nothing, removed from any connection to the characters we see on screen.
Some reviews for the film gave away the central moral dilemma, a decision that could be justified, but the film has no more depth than its synopsis and later developments do not create any further moral complexity, or, importantly, any comedy. The later twists only serve to reinforce the thin and changeable nature of the characters. The other area of contention in response to this film, has been the student/teacher trope alongside recent and continuous reprimanding of Hollywood for its pairing of older men with younger women. Allen is notorious for this, however his characters are often complex in their own ways, as real people are, and so his pairings may not be as reducible to the scrutiny leveled at the likes of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Here, however there is nothing to say. The film is so simplistic and repetitive compared to Allen’s other work that it is not worth analysing.
Irrational Man is, unfortunately, a long way from the quality of filmmaking that has spanned the breadth of Allen’s career.