Tepid Contemplation: The Unraveling of a Mild Murder Plot
For his 46th feature film, Irrational Man calls upon Woody Allen’s fascination, or at least tendency to create a rhythm found in carefully selected individuals and their counterparts. As he revisits the idea of murder against a bright and picturesque backdrop, the film delivers on fan service as it continues and prolongs Allen’s inclinations and proclivities as an auteur. And yet, it’s starkingly problematic as a standalone piece.
Joaquin Phoenix arrives at a quaint New England campus as Abe Lucas, a renowned philosophy professor. His reputation as an anti-thesis and enigma precedes him and it doesn’t take long for enthusiasm, intrigue, and gossip to build amongst the students and faculty. The former includes bright-eyed Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) who babbles on about his brilliance, much to the dismay of her doting boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) and the latter includes the spirited Rita Richards (Parker Posey) who unabashedly attempts to seduce him. Carrying around a flask and a self-imposed burden of nihilism and existentialism, his impenetrable demeanor only furthers the women’s attraction as if breaking past those walls is a carnival prize to be won. He soon strikes up a questionable friendship with Jill (initiated predictably by a compliment on her paper after class) who grows enamored with the hurt soul that he harbors. Despite this new change of pace and far-fetched female attention, Abe’s passivity is only transformed into a renewed zest for life when he decides to pull off a perfect murder and seemingly gets away with it.
Dissection does not take long as it’s a diluted combination of a thriller, romantic comedy, drama, and philosophy 101 class. The name-dropping philosophies are pretentious, trying too hard to impress the wrong crowd. The forced injection of mystery and unraveling of it, specifically the dinner table scene, came off more so as an insult rather than a wink.
Most unsettling is the use of female characters that pigeonhole them as one-dimensional crutches for the protagonist. While not exactly a wallflower type in Magic in the Moonlight, here Stone plays a quintessential well-bred New England stereotype. Despite her rationale, she becomes focused on caring and changing Abe for the better which relegates her to a character whose value is dependent on her male counterpart. The relationship between Abe and Jill is a contrived student-teacher relationship at best and a lousy male fantasy at worst. With the talents of Posey and Stone at hand, one would think they could do more than fawn over the same ennui-riddled man with a hanging beer gut.
There is no invention of mystery or even a little triumph of convention or style. Allen has successfully created a self-sustaining brand and continues to rely on the pieces that still seem to work rather than to reinvent the wheel. With an award praised duet chess pieces (Posey underutilized as always) and track record, Allen puts up a clean and polished product within its clearly-drawn lines of comfort.
Despite the high philosophical quandaries, internal character conflicts, and a conscientious attempt at balancing between dark humor and lightheartedness, Irrational Man comes off as a distilled parody particularly when Stone acts as an amateur Nancy Drew. And although the film has a high opinion of itself (as seen at the end when a character walks along the sweeping beach with self-content and resolution), it’s not entirely earned. Ultimately, much like Abe’s take on life, there does not seem to be a higher cause or consequence to the film.