Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: Irrational Man

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. 
Woody Allen's latest, "Irrational Man," is a slow burn that starts off falteringly, but increasingly becomes more intriguing as it reveals its central story and philosophical concepts. Although the trailer portrays the picture as a comedy and there is some oddly cheerful music scoring the film, Allen's latest falls more in line with his darker fare, such as "Match Point" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors." And while it's not one of his best - or even one of his best of recent years - it's a movie that I'd say is of interest and worth a look.

In the film, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a superstar academic whose writing on philosophy compels his students and has given him a certain amount of infamy amongst his colleagues. As the film opens, he is taking a job at a liberal arts college in New England, where the faculty awaits his arrival with a combination of intrigue and trepidation.

Two women at the college instantly take to Abe - a fellow professor (Parker Posey) in an unhappy marriage and a student (Emma Stone), who values Lucas's attentions more than those of her boyfriend.

Abe is a depressive character who has lost the lust for life, his work and sex, amongst other things. Stone's Jill makes several attempted passes at him, but he tells her that they can only be friends. Posey's character does the same, but finds that the object of her affection is unable to perform.

One afternoon, Lucas and Jill are eating at a restaurant when they overhear a woman describe how a corrupt court judge has ruled to give her ex-husband custody of her children, despite his not seeming to care much about his own kids. The judge and the ex's lawyer are apparently friends and the woman bemoans the unfairness of her situation.

Abe is moved by the story and decides to break himself out of his existential rut by taking action and murdering the judge. It should come as no surprise that Jill, at one point, spots a copy of "Crime and Punishment" on Abe's desk, considering the Dostoevskian undertones of the picture. Abe comes to believe that his carrying out this perfect crime and helping the wronged woman will return meaning to his life. Of course, things do not go exactly as planned, setting up a denouement that is among the darkest in Allen's oeuvre.

"Irrational Man" is not without its problems. Abe is constantly spouting off quotes from Kierkegaard, Kant and Simone de Beauvoir, making him sound almost like a parody of a character that Allen might have lampooned in an earlier movie (remember the classic scene in which he derides the guy waiting in line for the movie in "Annie Hall"?). And Stone's character is also a little underwritten - she is, at first, merely a character who flits back and forth between romantic interests until, suddenly, she is expected to become the moral voice of the piece and the transition isn't exactly smooth.

The one thing that helps is that Phoenix and Stone are both very talented and can, therefore, make these characters work. And while the film's first half is slow-going - and by that, I mean slow to get around to the meat of its story and not slow moving - the second half mostly makes up for it. Although I'm not sure I can completely buy the turn the film takes in the final third - at least, from a character standpoint - it makes for great philosophical discussion and there are moments that are unsettling.

So, while "Irrational Man" is not one of Allen's best - and it certainly does not hold up against the great "Match Point" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" - it's worth a look. He's a great filmmaker who has been responsible for a number of terrific movies over a period of more than four decades. And considering that, in his late 70s, he's still churning out a movie every year, it's amazing that a majority of them are good.

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