Woody Allen’s rate at churning out films is extraordinary. He has released at least one film in every year since 1982. However, where his track record used to be consistently very good, in recent years his films have become consistently inconsistent. People are wrong to talk about him having a “return to form” with almost every other film. He has far too many “returns” to ever be off-form (except for one bad run in the early 2000s). However, to be back on form also requires a run of consistently good output.
Sadly, where his previous film ‘Magic In The Moonlight’ (2014) was underrated, Irrational Man has to, largely, go down as another miss. Joaquin Phoenix is a new professor of philosophy at Braylin University, something that already raises scepticism about plausibility. More realistically, it is commented that he is a man who will “put some Viagra into the philosophy department”. In his class is Emma Stone, and this being a Woody Allen film, it is not long before the young student falls uncontrollably in love with the middle-aged university professor.
The first act of the film follows the two of them in a will-they-won’t-they manner, and is sadly lacking in humour or interest. But the plot moves off on a sideways tangent when the two of them overhear a woman, tearfully telling of a judge behaving improperly which will result in her losing custody of her children. Phoenix – as a teacher of ethics – theorises that the world would be a better place without this man, and believes it legitimate to murder a man he has never met.
Thus, at the heart of the film lie two issues. The philosophical issue at play in the film is, “Is it ever morally justifiable to kill someone?” The cinematic issue at play in the film is, “Is it ever morally justifiable to steal the plot of Strangers On A Train?”
With Phoenix planning to murder somebody he has never actually met, it is impossible to watch Irrational Man and not think of Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel. And although there is a difference in motive for murder between the films, unlike the light-hearted Irrational Man, Strangers On A Train had the corresponding tension along with it.
Meanwhile, the philosophical issue is certainly an interesting one, but sadly not consistently throughout. This would be fine if the film made up for it in laughs, but the film is very low on humour. This is not necessarily a problem, even for a Woody Allen film. Very few of his films (especially since his “early, funny ones”) have been out-and-out comedies. This would be fine if the film made up for it with drama, tension and intrigue. But this is only periodically the case here.
On a mildly positive side, both Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix provide decent performances. But neither of the roles are particularly well written, and Allen’s script is the fault here. There is, however, a very good supporting performance from Parker Posey, as the love interest snubbed by Phoenix in favour of Stone.
On a wider note, I am personally a little bored (and slightly sick) of the recurring trope at the centre of many Woody Allen films of the professor/writer/comedian [delete as applicable] having an affair with the young student/daughter of friend [delete as applicable], who is unaccountably infatuated with this older man. It would be creepy regardless of who made the films, but with real life events overshadowing Woody Allen’s career, this film (along with all the others) becomes awkward and uncomfortable. The fact that this trope occurs in so many of his films – Manhattan (1979), Husbands and Wives (1992) – sadly leads to the impression we are watching a recurring fantasy play out on screen in front of us.
In the end, Irrational Man is mildly entertaining, mildly dramatic, and mildly intriguing (though sadly not mildly funny). But it is not a bad film. It is not even a poor one. But it does have a poor script, which is too light-hearted for serious tension, yet with no comedy, and this is the fault of Woody Allen.