Movie Review: ‘IRRATIONAL MAN’ – A Clever Dark Comedy That Lacks Innovation


Cole Clay //Film Critic

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey and Jamie Blackley

After over a half century of movie making, Woody Allen is still holding true to his one picture per year quota that has gone on as far as the early 80s. Even though Allen has been under fire from the shame culture that affects our society, he still remains one of the great minds and provocateurs in cinema today. Being able to separate art from life is impossible as art is influenced by life, and to me that is why his latest IRRATIONAL MAN succeeds as one of his stranger entries in recent memory.

Professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at the fictional Braylin College located in Rhode Island. The J. Crew catalogue aesthetic is far detached from any sort of reality that can be related to by the middle class, but that type of escapism has always served Allen’s body of work quite well– it’s almost a little bit dream like. He’s a philosophy professor, so he’s a cynical drunk with a brilliant mind that’s wasted on narcissism. But damn, if Abe Lucas isn’t charismatic as he chugs his flask while strolling on campus. This attracts the attention of a student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), who is attracted to him for those aforementioned qualities and oddly enough for his womanizing tendencies. This is classic Allen in a sense, but also a plot contrivance that becomes the crux of the film and gets in the way of the film’s existential message. She’s just sick of her monied boyfriend and fellow student Roy (Jamie Blackley), who gets chippy when his best girl becomes infatuated with Abe Lucas.

The tandem voice-over narration by our two main characters appears to be reliable source of information, as they spill their guts about their place in the world in which they live. Lucas finds meaning in committing a crime against a corrupt county court judge when he overhears that they have done wrong by a stranger. As for Pollard, she just wants to be excited by the prospect of interesting people. It’s not the best female character Allen has written, but her flaws are intentional. Lucas is another absurd character played by Phoenix; he’s the one dramatic actor that can slightly shift his performances to a comedic perspective without the audience even noticing the calibration.

Joaquin Phoenix (left) Emma Stone left photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Another leading player is Rita (Parker Posey) who gets some good scenes alongside Lucas as a lonely science professor. They develop a sexual relationship that more than one time has Lucas saying the typical excuses, “it’s been a year since I’ve been able to perform.” I wish Allen would have thrown in the old classic excuse, “this has never happened to me before.” But unfortunately, he is too close to his own material and really struggles to find a consistent tone. This film is not a comedy nor a drama, or dramedy for that matter. It’s on its own.

IRRATIONAL MAN calls back to some of Allen’s better and more thought provoking films, such as CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS or MATCH POINT. It has the alchemy of his earlier work. Even though the characters are uneven at times, especially Stone who is a fine actor in her own right, Allen’s dialogue is a bit sticky when it comes from her.

It’s funny when you talk about a Woody Allen picture; we always find ourselves comparing it to his halcyon years as a filmmaker. Allen has never cared about reviews, which in a way makes his work either that much more romantic or cynical, but that just depends on which side of the coin you land.

IRRATIONAL MAN is a complex film that deserves to be seen by any Allen fan. And suffice to say, Phoenix meshes well with the material. It’s difficult to get inside Lucas’ head and understand his internal arguments, but that makes this jaunt all the more engrossing.

IRRATIONAL MAN opens in limited release tomorrow.
DFW: Landmark Magnolia, Forth Worth Museum of Modern Art


About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.