Allen's collegiate comedy retreads familiar themes, but Phoenix keeps you on your toes.
There’s always that guy—that mopey, beer-bellied loser who sits alone by the fireplace at house parties, looking too lost in thought to give a damn about the goofs dancing around him. He’s the loneliest man in the world. Funny thing: he never leaves the party alone. That’s because there’s always that girl. That warm, doe-eyed girl who finds his wallowing sexy as hell. She’s drawn to him as if under a spell, petting his head like a sick puppy. They always leave together, and it always ends in disaster.
In Woody Allen‘s collegiate comedy Irrational Man, Emma Stone plays that girl to Joaquin Phoenix‘s that guy. A depressed college professor, Phoenix’s Abe Lucas shows up for his first day on the job at fictional Braylin College drunk and stumbling, his reputation as an distinguished philosopher the only thing keeping the dean and other staffers from sending him back home packing. He’s a tormented asshole, bored with the world, imposing his passion for indifference on his students. He sees potential in undergrad Jill (Stone) as a writer; she sees potential in him as her future husband. As Jill becomes more forthcoming about her feelings (it doesn’t take long), Abe insists they keep their afternoon talks strictly platonic, which of course only fans the flames of her desire.
Abe’s less reluctant to romp around with academic colleague Rita Richards (Parker Posey, again stuffed in a role too small), a similarly reclusive soul who offers to “unblock” him after she slinks into his faculty housing for an unexpected late-night rendezvous. Their sad-sack sex sessions are a mostly agreeable distraction for Abe, though he continues to spend lots of time with Jill, chatting about existentialist philosophy over coffee and toast. When they eavesdrop on a curious conversation from a neighboring booth at their local diner, the plot gets strapped with rocket-boosters: Abe finds himself reawakened when, inspired by what he overhears, he decides to plan the perfect murder, offing a total stranger in a stunt of misguided vigilante justice. The fact that he’s a professor of “ethical strategies” is the cruel joke of the movie.
Naturally, Abe’s rejection of Jill’s advances gets reneged when the heat between them becomes undeniable (his newfound—albeit twisted—sense of purpose has also lifted his spirits considerably). Phoenix and Stone, sadly, never reach such levels of synchronization. Maybe it’s her age or her eagerness to impress Mr. Allen, but Stone (like many other actors, to be fair) recites Allen’s dialogue in that stagy, stringent way that suggests they’re inextricably bound to the page. Allen’s writing is good (especially his one-liners), but much like Wes Anderson, you sometimes wish his characters would just cut the shit and talk like normal people.
That’s why Phoenix is so great in this movie; he messes with the game-plan a bit. He breaks up the typical Woody Allen cadence, slurring Abe’s words and taking labored, deep breaths to a rhythm all his own. Allen’s known for giving his actors little to no feedback, and Phoenix and Stone seem to react to that pass/fail style of directing in dramatically different ways, resulting in a pair of disparate performances, one doggedly disciplined, the other wild and naturalistic. Neither are bad, though Posey’s unhinged energy aligns more with Phoenix, making Stone feel even more fractured from the group. It’s frustrating that Posey continues to be cast in roles beneath her gifts, but it’s nevertheless a treat to see her finally collaborate with Allen.
Abe and Jill’s romance is one of Hitchcockian flavor, defined by dangerous obsession and poetic twists of fate. There are some amusing homages to Hitchcock classics, like when we see Abe and Jill stroll through a brightly-lit nighttime fairgrounds á la Strangers on a Train. Still, Allen is in his own voice, focusing on humor and theme rather than suspense. The writing’s at its most playful in the movie’s second act, where we follow Abe opening up to Jill and gleefully plotting out his broad-daylight assassination. Before and after this middle section, the movie feels stilted, save for a wickedly funny life lesson Abe teaches his students via an impromptu game of Russian Roulette.
For a movie about intellectuals rattling off eloquently-worded philosophical sermons, Irrational Man feels strangely shallow. These themes of blocked-up libido, cross-generational romance and existentialist neuroses have all been covered in previous films of Allen’s, which makes his latest seem destined to fade into the background of his crowded oeuvre like so many others. Phoenix is so chaotic and off-kilter as the miserable anti-hero, though, that he manages to keep you on your toes when the movie threatens to fall flat.