As with so many of his films, Woody Allen’s latest features a protagonist, this time played by Joaquin Phoenix, seemingly modeled on the filmmaker himself: an older, misanthropic member of the cognoscenti infatuated with a woman decades his junior (Emma Stone). Though it’s not the central tension of this moral fable, much of “Irrational Man” depends on the premise that Phoenix’s philosophy professor is able to attract female admirers and to get away with a heinous crime in large part because the brilliance of his youthful output shields him from suspicion.
“Irrational Man” might then be read as Allen’s surprisingly candid commentary (intended or not) about the protective privileges of fame and stature. And that would be the most entertaining way to watch the film, because it’s otherwise a vexing, too-neat thought exercise whose tonal miscalculations make it feel more like a hasty first pass in the editing room than a final product.
Set on a bizarro-land college campus where students take notes by hand and no one bats an eye when a faculty member and his best student start hooking up (least of all her professor parents), “Irrational Man” finds Phoenix’s paunchy, cranky, impotent, and alcoholic celebrity scholar on the verge of suicide when he happens on the solution to all his problems: vigilante murder. On a diner date with his star student Jill (Stone), a cultured but naïve coed, he overhears a stranger weeping that a corrupt judge (Tom Kemp) will give custody of her son to her negligent ex-husband.
Though it takes Abe a while to figure out how to kill the judge without getting caught and to intellectually justify the murder to himself (which I guess is what a humanities education is good for), his obsession with death immediately restores him to life. He beds not just Jill, but also his sexually aggressive colleague Rita (Parker Posey), a married woman in love with the fantasy of running away with one of her flings. If she’s a cowardly romantic, he’s a dreamer in his own way too. Killing the crooked magistrate doesn’t just make him a superhero, but marks the natural culmination of his work. What good are ideas about ethics, after all, if they’re not put into practice?
Phoenix’s transformation from a scotch-soaked pile of tweed into a homicidally self-righteous ubermensch is fun to watch, but Allen too frequently loses sight of the story he’s telling. Abe’s assassination of the judge should be horrifying, but it’s soundtracked to an unironically jaunty jazz melody that recurs in the film’s predictable yet upsetting climax. Stone is underserved by a flat role that has her flipping back and forth between a lovelorn dumdum and an emotionally mature sophisticate, depending on whatever the story requires at any given moment.
Jill seduces her professor even after he displays his mental instability by playing a one-man game of Russian roulette at her friend’s party, and yet she’s clever enough to later piece together exactly how Abe kills the judge (in a farcical scene that feels lifted from a different movie). The contrast between her book smarts and her lack of man smarts should feel true, especially for a character her age, but ultimately she just feels like a stylishly dressed cog in the plot machine.
Also unclear is how the script intends for us to feel about Abe and Jill’s romance, in part because they live in a world of Allen’s social idiosyncrasies. When Abe, like so many of his predecessors, tells his student-girlfriend which books to read and what movies to see, it’s probably intended as a warm and caring gesture. But to, well, any modern viewer, that same act highlights the inappropriateness of their teacher-pupil relationship. And because we’re never sure where the signposts for inappropriateness stand, it’s hard to detect the nuances of Abe’s increasing divorce from reality.
The morality of murder and the dangers of falling for romantic fantasies are ideas Allen has explored more fully in better films like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” among others. The only thing that feels new in “Irrational Man” is the director’s honesty that you can get away with a whole lot as long as people admire you for your work and you evince roguish, self-deprecating charm – a much more interesting idea than this umpteenth imitation of Dostoyevsky. Perhaps Allen should take a lesson from the fact that the Russian novelist wrote “Crime and Punishment” only once.