Cert: 12A / 95 mins / Dir. Woody Allen / Trailer
"Why are you taking philosophy?", Joaquin Phonix's lecturer, Abe Lucas, asks his student at the top Woody Allen's Irrational Man. "Because if you're trying to figure out what all this bullshit is about, forget it." This is screenwriting short-hand for 'look, the film may be asking the questions, but don't expect it to reveal any of the answers', and it's a first-act warning which serves its audience well. This is by no means a stupid film, but it's certainly more of a whimsical stream-of-consciousness than a measured thesis.
As I sat and watched the melancholic comic-drama unfold in upmarket Chelsea, the first twenty minutes saw Allen's sharp and exploratory dialogue accompanied by the chorus of a senior-audience, to whom the process of 'eating snacks quietly' remains an unsolved mystery (and bonus temerity-points to the couple sat behind me who started chatting to one another on three occasions during the film, being firmly shushed by a patron directly behind them each time. I wanted to quietly thank this code-enforcer after the film, but by the time I left my seat, they'd left the auditorium. Whoever you are, you have my gratitude).
Anyway, Irrational Man sees Phoenix as a morosely freewheeling, alcoholic Philosophy*1 tutor, arriving mid-year to a university where he begins an affair with both a student and a member of staff. Struggling to find meaning in even the baser pleasures of life, his joie de vivre is awakened by an anonymous, chance encounter and his contemplation on joie de mort. The film's about the justification of murder; I won't say any more than that. But I think you can guess the direction it's headed in.
The sporadic dual narration from Phoenix's Abe and Emma Stone as his student/muse Jill is interesting, but returning to both means that the film never decides who's story it wants to tell fully. As Irrational Man is primarily a study of Abe, his viewpoint is more instrumental, yet is also the least-convincing. Joaquin Phoenix's lecture-voice might be that of a philosophy professor, but his inner monologue isn't. And while his performance is perfectly acceptable, I think the writing behind it is a little hazier.
On a more technical level, the film looks as warm and inviting as you'd expect from Allen, and the titles and credits are pushed meticulously yet unceremoniously to the beginning and end of the film, respectively. Other than the soundtrack, there's no interaction between the faintly ornate white-on-black text and the film itself, whatsoever. It's the mark of a director who's focussed on telling a story and hasn't gotten around to thinking about the marketing of it. You sort of get the impression that Woody has looked blankly at a studio-exec at some point and asked "…what's a title sequence? Can't you sort that out?"
But for all the film's directness, Allen's lightness-of-touch doesn't really allow the themes to be explored firmly enough. Whereas the philosophy of pre-meditated murder was frequently distracted by action set-pieces in Solace, here it keeps devolving into relationship-squabbles, somehow. There are fantastic dilemmas, dialogue and performances here, but the film feels as fragmented as its central character. Yet at the same time, the story would be told by many other directors with Jason Bateman staring blankly into camera while Kevin Hart or Melissa McCarthy shrieked around him. Best enjoy it for what it is, than lament for what it could have been.
The inherent darkness of Irrational Man's story sits ill-at-ease with the charm of the production. Maybe that's the point, but I doubt it.
Best line: "Abe Lucas? He writes well, but it's the triumph of style. The substance just doesn't stand up to scrutiny", in which Woody Allen assures us that his sense of irony isn't lost here, even if his focus is floundering... ;)
For Woody Allen fans, yes.
Everyone else? Wait for the home-release.
Again, fans of Allen will be buying it anyway, but everyone else should get away with a rental.
Not at all.
No (although come on, there's one perfect spot for it, and you could hardly say it would interrupt the film's realism).
The film stars Ethan Phillips, who appeared in Inside Llewyn Davis, alongside Oscar 'Poe Dameron' Isaac and Adam 'Kylo Ren' Driver.
*1 Which is to say that he's an alcoholic and he teaches Philosophy. An extra comma just looked out of place, there. He doesn't teach Alcoholic Philosophy, although if that was a subject I'd be banging on the door of the enrolment centre first thing Monday morning...
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
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