Woody Allen has been churning out a film a year for a long time. His neurotic characters and particular humour has always been a signature, but his style eventually grew a bit stale. Then Match Point came around, heralding the new Woody Allen era and signalling a change of course with some really creative and witty stories (his highest point in recent years certainly being the whimsical Midnight in Paris.) And all of this takes us to Irrational Man. While certainly not Woody’s greatest achievement, it’s still a small, tightly told story about a man going through tough times, making life changing decisions. Kind of like everyday life, in a way.
Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a philosophy teacher, who just moved to teach a new class at Braylin University. Clearly having seen better times, he’s a drunk, depressed individual, going through the motions at the lowest point in his life. Along comes Rita (Parker Posey) another teacher at the school, who becomes infatuated with his strange character. And Abe develops a tight relationship with one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone), who also becomes addicted to his revolutionary ideas and presence. But Abe is still unfazed, and it’s not until he gets the chance to help a stranger in a crucial way that his life takes a turn for the better. Now having an objective and drive, the film takes a fascinating turn into how decisions we make can change everything, from how we act to how we feel, no matter how terrible those decisions seem in the first place.
That’s it basically. It’s a small story, in a small town, with small characters having to take big decisions. Joaquin Phoenix always performs admirably, and that streak continues, as even though Abe has very questionable judgement, we still root for him all the way. Emma Stone is fantastic as well, and their interplay is by far the best thing about the film.
Woody handles the directing with the hand of a seasoned veteran, and as much as the film poses loads of philosophical questions, he takes the hand of the viewer to make ideas from Kafka to Hannah Arendt palatable to the common, everyday, non philosophical folk. The main issues with the film have to do with the pacing, as the film’s 180º turn seems almost too rushed and convenient, hurting the storytelling in the process. As much as the story goes to far more interesting places after this twist (not to be spoiled here), Abe changes radically and somewhat unrealistically after it. And perhaps the film lacks ambition, as being a movie that talks so fondly about great philosophical terms, the resolution does not pack the emotional punch it could have had.
Still, Irrational Man is an entertaining, slightly comedic, slightly dark tale, moved forward by great performances and big questions on the human condition. Woody Allen will still keep making films, one a year, and even if this one doesn’t match his greatest ones, it’s still one worth watching.
Irrational Man is released in UK cinemas on the 11th of September