Irrational Man

Set on the fictional, sunlit university campus of Braylin, Woody Allen’s Irrational Man deals with crisis-struck philosophy professor Abe Lucas (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and his search for meaning.

One of Woody’s classic “blocked” protagonists, Abe becomes a vehicle for exploring themes of randomness, chance and murder – themes which have haunted the film maker through Crimes and Misdimeanors, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream.

As I show in my new book, Woody Allen is still wrong-footing us and confounding expectations after all these years. Here, he delivers a jaunty-looking and sounding film yet one that beats to murderous impulses, kamikaze behaviour and sex. Although it will probably be filed as one of his more serious pictures, it is somehow situated a hair’s breadth from comedy yet teeters on the knife-edge of tragedy.

The audience at Cannes, where Irrational Man premiered back in May, was unsure of itself. I had to dash off a quick review to squeeze the film in as the final chapter of my book and I found the film thrillingly different yet very much in the vein of this film maker’s current and long-held pre-occupations. There’s something very exciting and clammy about Irrational Man, and also a big dash of ridiculousness – not in the film making (which remains elegant and poised), but in the characters themselves, in their self-obsessed, idiotic behaviour. Woody practically invites the audience to confuse the two – his direction and the action of the people within the film – using his old magician’s sleight- of-hand.

Phoenix’s paunchy Abe is given to self-loathing, soaked in sweat and red-eyed from alcohol yet still capable of exciting with his reputation and mercurial thought. Certainly a couple of women on campus are energised by his presence: Rita, a romantically disillusioned faculty wife and scientist (Parker Posey) and the young student Jill, played by Emma Stone who is drawn to Abe’s sprawling intellect and mature dissolution. Both women believe they can become his inspiration and muse.

Overhearing a conversation about an injustice in the local town of Newport, Abe elects to take drastic action and commit the perfect murder. Dressing this decision up as the physical enactment of a  philosophical conundrum somehow re-enthuses Abe’s entire being, giving him back energy of thought and renewing his sexual vigour.

Woody Allen is such an effortless film maker these days that his breezy movie universes can appear dashed-off, his actors often sounding at sea in directionless dialogue that many of today’s scriptwriters and directors would tighten up and polish to nothingness.

This film’s hidden depths, however, are dangerous eddies, the deadly seriousness of it all disguised in summery lightness and the hopefulness of youth, prettified by Darius Khondji’s seductive widescreen photography.

Phoenix and Stone make an intriguing pair – people, I know, will harp on about the age-gap even if this is one relationship pursued entirely by the younger woman – but their energies are in constant flux, flitting from naivety and innocence to complicity and sin. Phoenix gives familiar Woody words his own rhythm and Stone teases an intelligence from her lines to create a whip-smart Woody woman taking charge of her own neuroses yet nevertheless hurtling down the wrong path.

Yet even while the camera glides around the dappled Braylin campus, existential despair lurks around every corner and corridor. This looks like a loose-limbed comedy but plays like a taut, haunted thriller, plotted with care and choreographed with masterly control.

When Woody himself doesn’t appear in his films, they’re generally less comic and certainly feel less Jewish. Irrational Man, set entirely out of New York, has little of what typically defines Woody Allen’s American work. However, with its casual name dropping of Kierkegaard, Simone de Beauvoir and Dostoyevsky, it could never for a moment be mistaken for the work of any other film maker, other than maybe one of those younger French auteurs in Woody’s thrall (Desplechin, Assayas).

What remains very Woody here is the inquiry, the guilt, the testing of moral structure, the philosophical jostling and the search for significance. And all of this wrapped up in new costumes, new actors, new settings and with a somehow apposite use of Ramsey Lewis’s The In Crowd and Wade in the Water on the soundtrack.

It shouldn’t work, but it does and it’s unique as ever, only bearing resemblance to Woody’s own previous work. Irrational Man isn’t his best work but I liked it very much and it is nevertheless a significant film, part of his ever-evolving body of work and one of the more intelligent and probing American films of this year.

Nearing his 80th birthday, Woody Allen doesn’t make Manhattan or Annie Hall anymore. You wouldn’t expect a man of his age to still be grappling with the comic niceties of dating and break-ups. His search for meaning has deepened. And in this unceasingly prolific late period, uneven in quality though some of the films may be, he is still exploring the absurdities of modern existence (and non-existence) with a light touch, still unsure if life is funny or tragic, and still getting away with it.

To hear my exclusive interview with Woody Allen talking about his life, films and music after the Cannes premiere of Irrational Man, click here.

To purchase my book, Woody Allen: Film by Film, click here.