Deep Thoughts, Shallow Characters in ‘Irrational Man’

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Average: 5 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 3.0/5.0
Rating: 3.0/5.0

CHICAGO – At this point in his stellar career, what is fascinating about Woody Allen is basically what he thinks about. He is a successful, family-stable, millionaire filmmaker with mortality issues. In “Irrational Man,” he ponders the existential question of “what lights the spark of life?”

The other question – in critical circles – is always, “what kind of Woody Allen will show up?” In assessing his long career, there are masterpieces, middle-of-the-roaders and duds, but it’s his dogged pursuit of making movies that is always welcome, and oddly comforting. “Irrational Man” is a middle-of-the-roader with flashes of brilliance, but the thin way Allen draws the characters – students and professors in an academic setting – is very irritating in the context of what he ponders. The film is less of an entertainment than a philosophical exercise, and Woody does attempt to have a meaningful discussion about a very piquant subject, but ultimately he takes too many shortcuts with his characters to be completely successful. Since this is set in academia, it grades around the “B-minus” curve.

An East Coast liberal arts college lands a prize – a published philosophy professor named Abe (Joaquin Phoenix). He comes to the school with a roughshod past, a drinking problem and a reputation for screwing things up. He fascinates the smaller college community, including fellow faculty member Rita (Parker Posey) and student Jill (Emma Stone).

Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone
Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) and Jill (Emma Stone) in “Irrational Man’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Abe has ennui about life’s purpose, and shares it with Rita and Jill, who naturally are both attracted to his darkness. Jill’s crush is complicated by her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley), and Rita can’t seem to seduce the errant educator. When Jill and Abe overhear a dilemma that has nothing to do with them, Abe figures out a solution to the situation which jumpstarts his life force. Whether all the people around him will support this new feeling is another dilemma.

Here is what I came away with after taking “Irrational Man” – Woody Allen had trouble creating the alcoholic professor, he cannot write for younger people with any truth and he cannot relate to middle age women, in this case the Parker Posey character. But the questions he does raise about life’s energies are worth pondering, and the story does have some moments when the intellectual and emotional wonder that Woody has brought to his films over the years shines through.

Joaquin Phoenix (looking a bit tired and overweight) might not have been the right actor to play the professor. He fiddles with this ever-present flask at the beginning of the film – to establish the alcoholic sense – and he doesn’t inhabit the role. Allen has to introduce all the characters rather quickly, and the performers all suffer for it. There is absolutely no reason for Rita and Jill to fall for such a man, unless (as a theory) they have lost all sense of excitement in their lives and a burnt-out professor is a new path to fulfillment. It’s all so uncomfortable and not enough to believe.

Emma Stone is doing her second Woody Allen film, and was much better suited for the flightier “Magic in the Moonlight.” Playing a co-ed seems a step down for her evolving adult sensibility, especially one that moons for a admitted drunk and impotent professor. There are not enough reasons for the attraction that came through in the story, it’s possible it wasn’t even necessary to tell the story (except for Jill to to become voiceover for the epilogue). Parker Posey has also been much better elsewhere, and had a very difficult time pinning her narrow persona as it’s written by Woody, which is unusual for her as an actress.

Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey
Abe and Rita (Parker Posey) Try to Connect in “Irrational Man’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

But fortunately what works in “Irrational Man” is Allen’s need to filter his thoughts into cinematic philosophy. Interestingly enough, our current technological obsession is missing, yet what he was exposing about contemporary life could have been about those obsessive tools – at what point, and through what means, will satisfaction with our inner being be enough? The burnt out professor had seemingly done it all. but feels no satisfaction from it, and can’t find it through other people. What he does to revive his purpose again is radical, and can he keep that rationalization to feed this revival? The question is very enticing, and even though the story attempts to find answers (and dole out punishments), the question still vibrates long after the conclusion.

This is what Woody Allen does best, expresses the possibilities in cinematic terms that involve the life cycle, relationships, love and death – among others topics – and that has elicited movie emotions of joy, sorrow and even disgust over the years, but keeps considering what existence means. Damn the torpedoes, Woodman, full speed ahead.

”Irrational Man” opened July 17th nationwide, and opens July 22nd in Chicago. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey and Jamie Blackley. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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