After a joyful return to form with 2011’s Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s slump of To Rome with Love, Blue Jasmine (yes, as great as Cate Blanchett’s performance is, this too) and Magic in the Moonlight was beginning to worry me. Were we in for a down period as long as between Small Time Crooks and Match Point? Thankfully not, as Irrational Man is Woody Allen’s best film since Midnight in Paris; a complex, sometimes hilarious, sometimes dark story on morality and the role of intellectual superiority in that morality.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor with a pot-belly and a love of drink who takes a summer position at the fictional Braylin College in Rhode Island. He drives an old, boxy Volvo like you’d see a Cal Berkeley professor in his late 60s drive; he’s that kind of guy. Yet everything about his depressed physical appearance and overwrought philosophical meanderings has women throwing themselves at him (this is a Woody Allen film, after all).
Two women in particular vie for Abe’s affections; Rita Richards, a science professor married to another professor at the college, unhappily. She’s in her 40s, attractive and frank and superbly played with surprising restraint by Parker Posey. She’s not a simple cliché but a complex woman of great strength in knowing what she wants but also great weakness in that her attraction to Abe is in his brokenness. Then there’s Jill, a philosophy student in her 20s played by a never more effervescent Emma Stone. Full of questions, possibilities and naiveté I venture to say it’s one of Stone’s best performances (and roles) to date. She is with a ‘perfect’ guy who does everything right but Jill can’t help but be attracted to Abe’s cult of personality and his tortured past that she thinks she can fix.
When Jill and Abe overhear a conversation at a diner about a woman who is about to have her kids taken from her by a malicious judge, something sparks in Abe. Something real that he can, that must do. Not theory, not pretentious pontification but an action that will create a positive result. Or so he thinks. It is here that the tale unfolds with true Woody Allen flair for macabre, dark comedy and characters who are often too smart for their own good, or at least think they are.
Allen’s writing is often best when his character’s morality is in play and here it definitely is. There are great ironies taking place in these characters lives and Allen mines them like gold. Hints of Hitchcock, as well as Allen’s own Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan Murder Mystery, and a healthy dose of Dostoyevsky pepper the screenplay in a way that, even if it doesn’t feel fresh, still hit the mark.
One of Allen’s other great film making qualities is that he never slouches on the technical elements of his films and Irrational Man is no different. The cinematography by Allen regular Darius Khondji is rich and warm and has a great depth of field. The costumes by Suzy Benzinger feel lived in and real. Santo Loquasto’s production design feels authentic and appropriate.
Irrational Man is released by Sony Pictures Classics.