Woody Allen’s latest feature film, Irrational Man, turns on moral quandaries and dilemmas. Now playing in theaters, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as a depressed professor of philosophy, Emma Stone as his infatuated student and Parker Posey as her older romantic rival.
Allen, in this thoughtful movie about the frailties of the human condition, focuses on a supposedly reasonable man who risks his freedom to avenge what he claims is a miscarriage of justice.
Abe Lucas (Phoenix), an academic of originality whose reputation precedes him, arrives in Braylin College, an East Coast institution, to teach a summer course. His colleagues are eager to befriend him, but Lucas — an unconventional person who thinks that much of philosophy is “verbal masturbation” and “bullshit” — prefers to keep his distance.
Jill (Stone), a winsome student who finds him brilliant, fascinating and vulnerable, penetrates his jaded, world-weary and cynical veneer. Much to her boyfriend’s annoyance, she goes on about him ad infinitum.
Rita (Posey), a middle-aged professor who’s trapped in a bad marriage, also comes on to Lucas, claiming he needs a muse. Lucas, who’s in a semi-catatonic state most of the time, tries to keep Rita at bay. Posey is the personification of a mature woman who seeks one last fling before she settles down for good. In short order, Rita seduces him, only to discover that even Viagra might not be useful in this situation.
Lucas, a heavy drinker, is weighed down by a writer’s block, a condition that prevents him from finishing a book on the pro-Nazi German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Looking invariably sad, forlorn and distracted, Phoenix projects angst and soulfulness on a level few actors can match.
Smitten by Lucas, Jill offers to get his “creative juices” flowing. Resisting her advances, Lucas advises her not to break up with her boyfriend, Roy. Jill counters by saying that she does not have an “exclusive commitment” to Roy (Jamie Blackley).
Stone, alluring and captivating as usual, acquits herself admirably in this role.
The thematic heart of the film emerges in a brief scene during which Lucas overhears a conversation in a restaurant. Sitting with a few friends in a booth, a woman complains that a local judge has made life difficult for her. Lucas, feeling sorry for the woman, resolves to help her. “He’s a roach who should be stamped out,” he declares in reference to the judge
Armed with a sense of purpose, Lucas suddenly feels invigorated, relaxed, happy and sexually potent. His transformation is nothing short of amazing, but seems contrived.
Lucas’ resolve to act on his impulses enmeshes Jill and Rita in a web of gossipy speculation and deceit. Jill, in particular, is tormented by the question whether morality should trump her loyalty to Lucas.
The movie, Allen’s 45th, bogs down three-quarters of the way through, weighed down by the minutiae of Rita’s musings and Jill’s torment, but it picks up momentum as the denouement draws closer.
Irrational Man is by no means his finest film, but it’s entertaining enough and the issues it raises are vexing.