Woody Allen’s latest stars Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix, and has just debuted in Cannes. Here’s Jamie Graham’s reaction…
Woody Allen’s 45th feature as writer-director returns to the themes, philosophies and foibles that have haunted him since he was a young man viewing the films of Ingmar Bergman and studying the writings of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Kant. It is, of course, a comedy.
Set at the fictional East Coast college of Braylin, Irrational Man utilises Joaquin Phoenix’s sweet and sour sides as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor whose intense intellectual thinking has led him to the conclusion that his vocation is “verbal masturbation” and everything else is “bullshit”. A pot-bellied, hard-drinking, highly-sensitive man whose nihilism brings with it a waft of romanticism – he is, of course, versed in Russian literature and wrote poems until he burned the lot in a fit of derelict fury – Abe naturally attracts his fair share of women (this is a Woody Allen movie), including married science professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey) and bright young student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone).
Seemingly set to be one of Woody’s relationship comedy-dramas, Irrational Man takes a left turn when Abe and Jill overhear a conversation about a corrupt judge who's intent on depriving a good mother of her children. Suddenly, Abe has a purpose in life – to kill the judge and make the world a better place, however infinitesimally. And so Allen’s appreciation of Dostoevsky (again) comes to the fore, with Irrational Man reconfiguring itself into a companion piece for Crimes And Misdemeanors and Match Point, with a splash of Manhattan Murder Mystery mixed in for good measure.
But for all its musings on crime and punishment, this is not Woody in one of his sombre moods. Just as Abe’s bleak worldview is played for light amusement in the first half of the picture (his anger feels a good deal less raw and dangerous than Harry Block's in Deconstructing Harry), so his turning to murder is treated with a fair degree of mischief and merriment. Now a man of action rather than words, Abe finds his depression lifting and is once more able to revel in a pretty view, a glass of wine or a strenuous bout of lovemaking. Hell, he even fancies a sprinkle of cinnamon on his breakfast. It is left to Jill to be the conscience, with her growing suspicion as to Abe’s involvement in the judge’s death putting a strain on the relationship.
Allen’s detractors will no doubt feel they have seen it all before, ad nauseam, and eyes will be rolled at Jill finding Abe, with his erudition and bleak obsessions, irresistible. But Stone is an actress of resilience and fierce intelligence and these natural qualities enliven Jill, who, it should be said, emerges as the moral centre of the film; Abe is the irrational man of the title.
And while to make great claims for Irrational Man would be foolish, it is a breezy entertainment built upon a pair of likeable performances. The Newport, Rhode Island locations are handsomely lensed in widescreen by Allen’s now-regular DoP Dharius Khondji, while the pacing benefits greatly from Ramsey Lewis Trio’s toe-tapping, finger-snapping ‘The “In” Crowd’ forming the backbone of the soundtrack.
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