Another year, another Woody Allen film and sadly, Irrational Man is one of his lacklustre efforts, with the under plotted story, underwritten characters and clunky dialogue that mar the worst of his more recent efforts.
Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a tormented professor, starting work teaching philosophy at Braylin College in New England. Drinking heavily, and searching for meaning in life following the death of his mother and watching his wife run away with his best friend, he stumbles into two things that could provide what he needs. Firstly is a relationship with one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone, her second Allen film after Magic in the Moonlight). Secondly is the chance to do what he sees as a noble act for a desperate stranger – even if that noble act requires murder.
This is familiar territory for Allen, having explored the morality of murder, (and getting away with it) much more successfully in his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors. That had all the positives that this film is lacking, with suspense, wit, and characters who engage us. With Abe Lucas however, we hear so much about how fascinating he is and how original his ideas are – but this all comes from other people, rarely from the words or actions of the man himself. Stone works hard to breathe some life into Jill, but this is an uphill struggle with such an underwritten character, someone who is little more than a perky but unremarkable student infatuated with her tutor. The only spark of interest comes from Parker Posey as Professor Rita Richards, the man hungry colleague of Lucas who starts an affair with him. However, it is difficult to fathom what she finds so fascinating about him, other than a desire to escape her own unhappy marriage.
Without the characters to drive it, the drama falls flat, becoming one simply one set of events after another, with no sense of urgency or suspense, culminating in a hokey twist straight out of Murder She Wrote. The dialogue is another disappointment, awkward, obvious and expositional. The gag writer in Allen usually keeps some sparkle in his words, but here his talents seem to have deserted him. As is so often the case, is the script that makes or breaks a Woody Allen film, and, as he has shown recently with Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris, (two wildly different films in style and subject matter), when he bothers to put some effort in with the writing, he is as brilliant and original a film-maker as he ever was.