In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays a philosophy professor. That’s like saying “Richard Nixon plays a woman.” Yet Phoenix, and to a lesser extent Emma Stone, is the only reason to watch Woody Allen’s latest picture, another in a string of unintentionally uproarious movies that thinks it’s grappling with existential questions but is really “Murder, She Wrote” with polysyllabic words. Irrational Man reveals its creator as a man of startling and adamantine conservatism — a man who never forgot a teenage reading of Dostoyevsky (never Turgenev or Gogol!) and used poetry and Sartre and Heidegger as punch lines to compensate for never having read them. Although it’s more ambitious, Irrational Man isn’t as grotesque as Blue Jasmine, thanks to Phoenix, Stone, and the collective indulgence of Allen’s audience: we know that he’s gotta brood through an Another Woman, Interiors, and Match Point every decade or so, therefore the film is easier to dismiss.
This time the philosophy professor isn’t a gaseous Primo Levi type like in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but a drunkard with a generous pot belly hired by Braylin, a private college in Newport — the sort of school that assigns two-story cottages to faculty and blinks not an eye when professors and students make out on porticos and verandas in full sight (more on that later). A veteran of Darfur and global liberal protest, Abe Lucas has earned the right to brood and carry a flask and serve warmed over Kierkegaard to undergraduates. No matter. The audience is reassured of Abe’s brilliance; Allen uses the adjective like Chuck Todd does when praising Ted Cruz. From his first class Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) is hooked. “I loved your essay on situational ethics,” she beams, an echo of hamhanded allusions in other Allen films, like Sam Waterston telling one of the women in September that they better hurry lest they miss the Kurosawa film festival. The only thing Irrational Man (horrid title!) gets right is accepting the legitimacy of Jill’s attraction: she wants to fuck him, period. But Allen, a citizen in a world where weltschmerz has libidinal potency, has Abe sulk his way between the bedsheets of chemistry professor Rita. Parker Posey is so unrecognizable that I did a double take when I saw that familiar chin wobble in angst. At first she’s used for her airhead concentration; she too wants nothing more than to fuck Abe hard. But after a while Posey redeems the cruel and crude characterization; she’s what Jill will become if Jill’s not careful.
For a while Abe’s “situational ethics” restrain him from bedding Jill, despite long walks through the Braylin grounds and Jill wondering aloud if, like Juliette Lewis in Central Park with Allen himself in Husbands & Wives, she’s blushing. Jill is, to use Abe’s bobbysoxer parlance, “going with” a guy who looks like he’s in Vampire Weekend. One afternoon in a diner they overhear a distraught woman in the booth behind them admit to friends that a certain Judge Spengler has threatened to award custody of her children to her rake of a husband. “I hope he gets cancer,” she says through tears. The conceit of Irrational Man is that Abe, turned on by the possibility of action, will find meaning in murdering Spengler. Twice he calls him a “roach,” an insect whose death will make the world a better place (Spengler shares a name with the author, uh huh, of The Decline of the West; like Chekhov said, if you introduce a writer in the first act, you better treat him like a cream pie and shove the audience’s face into it by the third). Suddenly he can write. He can get hard. He can write poetry. However, tumescence doesn’t improve the voice-over of a guy who uses “creative juices flowing” in 2015 and stands on cliffs to say things like “I’ve become attuned to the sensual joys of life.”
A move as slovenly conceived as Irrational Man isn’t worth defenestrating because its implausibilities are so obvious, but in a better movie I wouldn’t give a shit that a grad student doesn’t blink when she finds Abe in the chem lab looking at cyanide and Jill’s parents are music professors who nevertheless know exactly what’s wrong with a peer-reviewed philosophy journal article (add academe to the list of things about which Woody Allen knows nothing). What suspense Allen generates is whether Jill will turn Abe in. But I think there’s greater suspense in guessing when Allen will close the faucet on the torrent of voice-over, as vestigial as an appendix and as deadly when inflamed. “My thoughts were mixed up,” Jill says while she sits at a table looking mixed up, which is at least a better declarative sentence than the thought of Abe’s murder troubling her like “a dark cloud had passed over the moon.”
Although Darius Khondji gets credit for cinematography, I saw not a single interesting composition in Irrational Man; its devotion to medium shot and closeups represent a devolution in Allen’s framing, a surrender to the soap opera cinema to which he thinks he has stood in opposition. In a way this crumminess suits the scenario — this is a movie in which a certain character gives the game away by writing marginalia in a Dostoyevsky novel. It zips along thanks to crisp editing and the antics of Phoenix. Approaching speech like he chewed on two or three pieces of colored chalk before lunch, he’s miscast but watchable; I get why Allen suspects college women would want him. As noted, Stone’s horniness is refreshing in an American movie, but she can’t give a couple of the confrontations the necessary friction. But who cares? Illiterate and implausible, Irrational Man is nevertheless a trim example of fourth-rate dinner theater.