After the frothy romance of Magic in the Moonlight, director Woody Allen has veered back to the dark side. Irrational Man is a black comedy that precariously switches notes between humor and more serious drama, sometimes hitting some jarring keys along the way. It’s always interesting and has some great scenes, but doesn’t serve as one of the strongest titles in the director’s catalog. Honestly, this effort seems suited to Allen fans exclusively.
Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a new and greatly admired philosophy professor suffering from depression, writer’s block and various other maladies. His brilliant but tortured mind makes him attractive to co-worker Rita (Parker Posey) and star pupil Jill (Emma Stone), who both hold deep seeded wishes to be a romantic partner. While most would find the attention flattering, it’s a more disturbing philosophical question that ultimately reinvigorates Abe’s zest for life.
As a teacher, the protagonist complains that too much of what he teaches is theoretical. Abe feels his work has no impact on society and that people need to act out and experience rather than discuss concepts. When a opportunity arises to test an idea in practice and make a moral judgment that could change the life of a random stranger, he moves forward. The lead becomes a happier and more productive person, believing his actions will have a tangible effect on others (even if he appears to be rationalizing his behavior using theoretical ideas he has previously chastised).
As a movie about philosophy, themes of existentialism and the works of Kant and Dostoevsky (among many others) are frequently referenced. Despite some of the heavy subject matter, Allen attempts to keep things light, contrasting his main story with a romantic subplot. It’s an unusual approach and does result in imbalances here and there. There are strange tonal shifts, none more startling than the abrupt climax in which a violent act is followed by a bubbly musical number. In some way, it may be intended as a contrast to nasty realities of life (as well as lighten the mood as one exits), but it isn’t a smooth transition.
The biggest problem for many viewers will be the nature of the main leads. Many of the characters are unsatisfied with their lot in life – they’re selfish and at times ugly (as most people can be to some degree). Jill idolizes Abe, but while she eventually criticizes her mentor for his actions, she has some unusual decisions to account for as well. It makes her an interesting character, but not one that audiences will easily be able to get behind. With so many character flaws onscreen, one wishes that the film had fully embraced the black comedy and taken its leads to a darker place.
Still, there are enjoyable aspects. The performers all get in a witty remark or two and it’s entertaining to watch Abe as he attempts to feign innocence and avoid suspicion (perhaps feeling a bit superior about himself in the process). So even if the movie doesn’t always succeed, there are some plusses along the way.
Warts and all, there are enough interesting ideas here to warrant a look, although it seems as though Irrational Man is a bit unbalanced. Those willing to tolerate a more tonally jumbled effort from an otherwise reliable director can give it a try, but others may not want to enroll.