At this point, the best way to describe new Woody Allen movies is to tell you which older Woody Allen movies they steal most liberally from. So: Irrational Man is Allen's latest “the morality of murder” flick, offering an abundance of scenes that play like variations on moments from Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Cassandra's Dream. However, there's one odd, crucial difference this time around. In all three of those films, there's a certain measure of sweat-inducing tension that comes with their tales of men attempting to elude the law and/or their own guilt. In Irrational Man, there's almost no tension at all, which is partially due to Allen's curiously slack direction and partially due to the fact that the film keeps drawing distracting parallels to Allen's personal life. Unfortunately, the question of whether the film is some sort of confession is infinitely more interesting than the story the film serves up.
Our main character is a philosophy professor named Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice), who is yet another of Allen's neurotic intellectuals. Abe is a smart, but perhaps a little too smart for his own good: he can no longer find many philosophical or intellectual reasons to keep living, and has begun flirting with the notion of suicide on an alarming regular basis. He's a fairly sulky and isolated man, though his moody personality only seems to make him more appealing to the women in his life. He has a casual sexual relationship with his colleague Rita (Parker Posey, Best in Show), and gently fends off advances from his eager young student Jill (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man).
One day, Abe overhears a woman in a restaurant bemoaning the fact that she's about to lose her children in a custody battle due to the actions of an unethical judge. It's a sad story, but one that sparks a major turning point in Abe's life: he decides that the right thing to do in this situation is to murder the judge. This isn't treated as the act of a man who has nothing left to live for, but the act of a man who has suddenly found a reason to live. After determining that he's going to commit murder, Abe's whole personality changes: he has a spring in his step, a sparkle in his eye and a sudden willingness to invite Jill into his bedroom.
Allen doesn't act in his own movies nearly as often as he used to, but most of them are still centered around an obviously Allen-esque character. Irrational Man is no exception – this is a man prone to casually saying things like “So much of philosophy is just verbal masturbation” and “I couldn't remember the reason for living, and when I did it wasn't convincing” - but Phoenix is the rare lead actor who seemingly has no interest in doing an Allen imitation. This is a mumbly, method-y performance, and there are moments when Phoenix almost seems to be trying to suck the playful humor out of Allen's dialogue. It's an interesting idea, but it doesn't work: the actor has rarely been this boring.
Still, the deeper you get into the film, the more you start to wonder what, exactly, Allen is trying to say. The film is alternately narrated by Abe and Jill, both of whom suggest that a man of Abe's intellectual depth shouldn't have to be judged by the narrow morals of ordinary people. However, there's a crucial difference in their beliefs that leads to the film's central moral argument: Abe believes that he should be able to do whatever makes him happy no matter what, but Jill believes that Abe should only be able to do whatever makes him happy as long as he ensures that no innocent people are harmed. Whichever argument you find more convincing, it's worth noting that plain old “do the right thing” morality is relegated to obscure third party status. Pity the poor genius who does something satisfying but controversial and has to deal with judgmental people as a result. Hmmm, now where did this can of worms come from?
Maybe all of this would have seemed more provocative if this weren't Allen's most snooze-inducing feature since You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. While Posey and Stone have some nice moments as the two women who end up vying for Abe's heart (a plot strand that leads to some casually thoughtless infidelity on Abe's part), they struggle to generate any real chemistry with Phoenix. Darius Khondji's cinematography makes fine use of a wide variety of lush Rhode Island settings, and Allen's jazzy soundtrack cues are typically appealing, but the film as a whole never really clicks the way it should. It has a handful of amusing moments, but it isn't really a comedy. It has a handful of dramatic moments, but it isn't really a drama. It has a bit of murder, but it isn't really a thriller. So what is it? It's a handful of talented actors in attractive locations casually strolling through a microwaved story and doing their best to sell Allen's half-baked batch of eyebrow-raising rationalizations.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 2015