I’ve liked a lot of Woody Allen’s stuff over the past decade, as he got out of his comfort zone and did crime dramas, period costume trifles, romantic European adventures -- anything besides self-involved New Yorkers spinning in their own delusions and neuroses. For a guy nearly age 80, I think the last 10 years been his most fertile period since the 1980s.
(Most people consider the ’70s his heyday, but really aside from “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall” his flicks of that era are rather overrated.)
“Irrational Man” is the dry, tasteless chaser at the end of a long and exquisite banquet. This morality-play-cum-murder-mystery is flat and stale, playing out like fourth-string Dostoevsky warmed over with postmodern irony and angst.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a rock star philosophy professor – such persons exist only in the movies – who’s come to a tiny provincial liberal arts college in Rhode Island to teach for the summer. His reputation precedes itself: he’s a boozer, womanizer, moody rebel and suicidal free-thinker. Half the campus is gabbing about him even before Abe anticlimactically pulls up in an aging Volvo, his untucked shirt swaddling a protruding beer gut.
It’s an insular community where everybody knows everyone else’s business. Rita (Parker Posey), a fellow professor whose mid-life crisis seems to ooze from her very pores, has soon wrangled Abe into her bed. But his deepest relationship is with one of his students, a smart and discerning lass named Jill (Emma) whose parents are both music professors at the college.
They strike up a friendship that soon becomes more, at least to Jill, though Abe goes to great lengths to deny it. Meanwhile, her boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley), practically vibrates with jealousy toward his older rival, though he labors to make a joke of it.
Abe is searching for a reason to go on living, and he thinks he’s found it by stumbling upon the idea of ending another person’s life. He and Jill overhear the tale of a corrupt judge ruining an innocent woman’s life. Abe becomes obsessed with the idea of pulling off a Hitchcockian murder. The fact that he has no attachment to the victim and no motive for killing him will ensure the perfect crime.
It doesn’t, of course, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. Things go on, with Abe moralizing his act to himself while Jill plays Nancy Drew, slowly circling a corkscrew of clues that inevitably leads back to the man she (thinks she) loves.
Allen’s storytelling method is to have Abe and Jill pass the narration back and forth between them, so we perfectly understand their thought process and interior monologue. The problem with this approach is that neither character ends up holding any mystery. How much better to make it a game about the impressionable student trying to suss out if the professor she’s sleeping with could be a murderer, or the morally compromised teacher worrying about being bested by his pupil.
In the end “Irrational” is more an exercise than a movie, a bunch of smart, educated people engaged in a grand game of deception – of each other, their moral posturing and, mostly, of themselves.