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Schizophrenic Film

Sony Pictures Classics
 95 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Woody Allen 
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey 
Irrational Man

There are only two things movie viewers can count on in the summer months, big special effects laden blockbusters and their nearly polar opposite, a Woody Allen movie. Although Allen shows no signs of slowing down, his output is increasingly hit and miss. After helping Cate Blanchett nab an Oscar two years ago for Blue Jasmine, one of his best efforts, Allen followed that with the hit-and-miss Magic in the Moonlight, which, despite the presence of Colin Firth and Emma Stone heading the cast, was not magical. Now, Stone, who’s apparently Allen’s newest protégé, returns in An Irrational Man, another hit-and-miss effort.


Actually, it’s more accurate to describe Irrational Man as a miss-then-hit effort, as Allen flails around for most of the first half of the movie, trying to get a handle on his main character. Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a philosophy professor who takes up residence at a prestigious eastern university. Abe has been through the wringer in war zones and is now completely burned out, going through the motions as he sips from his hip flask to get through the day. He’s also got a pot belly and a generally antisocial attitude, which doesn’t stop women from fawning over him, especially Prof. Rita Richards (Parker Posey), who winds up bedding Abe, only to discover he’s also impotent.


Abe has another admirer, one of his students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone). Despite having a boyfriend, she regales the boyfriend, family, and friends with endless tales about Abe, making him sound like the most interesting man in the world from the Dos Equis commercials. Abe does start spending time with her, and one of their breakfast get-togethers ironically sets the actual plot of the movie in action, about halfway through. Not surprisingly, that marks the time when Irrational Man starts getting interesting.


Abe and Jill overhear a woman at the next table talking about how she might lose custody of her children thanks to a mean-spirited judge in her divorce case, and Abe impulsively decides that the world would be better off without the judge and that he is the man to do it. This realization completely energizes Abe, as he begins researching how to commit the crime and avoid detection. It also energizes Abe in bed as both Rita and Jill discover to their delight.


It’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that Abe is able to pull off the murder without a hitch, and equally non-spoilerish to reveal that things don’t go quite as planned afterwards. Allen has dipped his toes into noirish waters in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, so Abe’s path to the dark side is fairly familiar territory. And, while the religious aspects that were present in Crimes is absent here, the ethical points that Abe raises with his class in the early parts of the movie come home to roost with a flourish here.


From the moment that Abe hatches his murder scheme on, Irrational Man represents some of Allen’s better work. Phoenix is quite good here, even though he’s an actor I’ve always had a hard time warming up to. Although he feels confident that he’s come up with the perfect plan, it’s entertaining to see him react as things begin to go wrong. Stone also plays well off him, as she turns into a slightly older Nancy Drew, gradually figuring out his involvement, based on the scattered conversations they had. As a detective story, the second half of Irrational Man is quite good, evoking comparisons to Match Point, and having a darkly comic ending that’s equally as satisfying.


It’s the first half of the movie that’s a complete slog. Part of that has to do with the nature of Abe’s character and the completely burned out condition in which he mopes through this part of the movie. The low point is undoubtedly a game of Russian roulette that Abe decides to play in front of a stunned group of students. A larger part of the problem is that it’s virtually impossible to picture two attractive women throwing themselves at him because he’s an interesting character when he displays nothing other than a prodigious gut and a perpetually depressed attitude.


However, the biggest problem about the first half of Irrational Man is that’s almost a complete waste of time. Nothing happens, with the exception of a couple of ethical plot hooks regarding Abe’s lessons. Certainly the lessons themselves aren’t interesting or provocative, nor is the increasingly strained relationship between Jill and her increasingly frustrated boyfriend (Jaime Blackley), who sees the handwriting on the wall about Jill and Abe long before she does. And, while I have a sneaking suspicion that Allen intended this material to be funny, I can’t really see any humor.


All in all, Irrational Man may well be Allen’s most frustrating film. While he’s certainly made worse movies, his inconsistent films generally have good bits and pieces scattered around. Here, he shows a clever touch in making a half movie that would stand up quite well on its own as a segment in an anthology, and then stuck on some of his most boring and pointless material ever. The only way to look at it is that Allen’s screenplay for this movie is, well, totally irrational.

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Irrational Man (2015) on IMDb