Irrational Man

IRRATIONAL MAN. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey. Directed by Woody Allen. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language and a sex scene). 95 min.

This is an American drama-mystery about a Philosophy Professor, who undergoes a personal crisis that pushes him into "irrational" criminal behaviour.

Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is burnt-out, depressed and alcoholic, and he has had a bitter divorce. He is on the verge of a mental breakdown, and takes a summer position at a fictional University in Rhode Island, USA, which is initially thrilled to have him on its staff. Ironically (and there is a lot of irony in this movie), he is a reputed expert on "situational ethics".

Abe is the centre of attention and almost immediately becomes involved with two women. One is Rita Richards (Parker Posey), a fellow academic Professor, who is unhappily married, and the other is a young undergraduate student, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), who is in his class. Both women find him vulnerable, brilliant, and fascinating. Rita is the kind of woman he has never had, and Abe thinks he has found a new lease of life when he falls in love with his star-struck student.

While sharing a meal in a cafe with Jill, he overhears a conversation from a woman sitting in a booth behind him about a corrupt family court judge who prevented access to her children in a custody battle. Almost immediately, he decides to murder the judge for the injustice of his behaviour. The obsession to render justice overtakes Abe and, acting pathologically, he puts cyanide into the judge's drink with predictable results. Abe has made a choice "to take a human life", and to him "it feels right". Even the thought of the murderous deed rejuvenates him and gives him a reason for his existence. He thinks he is secure, because no one will be able to connect him with the judge in question, and to him it seems the perfect crime. Unwittingly, Jill has inspired his murderous intent. She has pushed him to take "direct action", and he feels a new man.

Jill finds out to her horror what he has done and urges Abe to hand himself over to the Police. Abe is unhappy about her suggestion, and takes equally irrational steps to prevent that happening. What results, is a surprise ending to the film - that is a "spoiler" to reveal - but it allows Allen to deliver his punch-line. This film is actually targeting convenient philosophical rhetoric that provides comfortable rationalisations for what happens in real life.

This is the 45th. film that Woody Allen has directed, and the second time that Emma Stone has taken the female lead. Previously, she starred in his romantic comedy, "Magic in the Moonlight" (2014). One of America's finest actors, Joaquin Phoenix, co-stars with her in the title role.

The film is not one of Allen's best, but it is very good and holds attention. Typically, it delves into existential issues that are classically Woody Allen. The film takes the viewer on a trip through love, attachment, immoral action and intent, freedom of choice, and self-loathing. Conversations among the characters frequently lapse into pointed dialogue that explores issues such as age differences between partners, the transient futility of human joy, the arbitrariness of fate, moral hypocrisy among the educated, and the meaning of life. Most of the characters conduct their conversations about these issues in a witty context, laced liberally with provocative one-liners.

Philosophising is the target of this movie, and human motivation isn't. We don't know if Abe slips over into insanity, or whether his irrational behaviour illustrates personal shame or regret. Allen doesn't seem to care. The film becomes escapist entertainment in the Woody Allen style, rather that something that explores the complex psychological reasons for explaining odd and unexpected human behaviour. Alfred Hitchcock was a model for communicating the human motivation behind near-perfect murders, but Allen isn't. His interests lie elsewhere.

The film is edited tightly and directed with visual style. Its scripting is forced, in the sense that ideas   seem more important than character, but it is provocatively entertaining. Emma Stone and Parker Posey project their characters at the right pitch, while Joaquin Phoenix is wonderfully neurotic as Allen's unpredictable, irrational man.

This is not a gripping criminal thriller, but a characteristic Allen film that is perversely enjoyable and entertaining. It is perverse, because it has a sinister edge to it, and the moral values being communicated are totally unsettling, until one catches on to Allen's actual intent. In typical Woody Allen style, it entertains, but it is different from movies that he has made in the past. In this film, philosophical ideas become a target for critical reflection, instead of being delivered for congenial acceptance.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Entertainment One Films

Released August 20th., 2015

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