With the recent Cate Blanchett-led tour de force that is Blue Jasmine and the delightful Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen has proven he still has the ability to produced well-crafted, engaging dramas. However, from the first few moments of his latest film, Irrational Man, there’s the sense this will shape up to be one of his lesser works. Despite some compelling elements, unfortunately that premonition carries through.

The story follows Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a famous philosophy scholar who has accepted a job as professor of philosophy in Newport, Rhode Island. It is there that he becomes romantically involved with a enthusiastic student of his, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), as well as a slightly unstable colleague, Rita Richards (Parker Posey). Things get a bit more interesting when Abe and Jill overhear a troubling conversation in a cafe one day, and Abe decides he’s going to pull off the perfect crime by poisoning a corrupt judge with whom he has virtually no ties.


During the opening scene, we glean two things. First, there is the diverting but ultimately over-utilized horn score; initially, the music stands out, but there is little variation to be had as Allen recycles the same stretch of melody over and over until it becomes tiring. Then there’s the voice-over, which comes across as the kind of second-rate pseudo-romantic narration that attempts (and fails) to blend strange doses of existentialism that seem out of tune with his character. At one point, Abe comments on the fact that philosophy is, for the most part, essentially just verbal masturbation.

On one hand, this provides the film with a potentially fascinating sense of self-referentiality as it seems to be aware of how inauthentic and futile some of its existential conversations come across, but it also feels like an attempt to justify why the dull script is, well, dull. Throughout his career, Allen’s dialogue has rarely resembled the way people speak to one another in reality. A few screenplays tend to suffer from this unfortunate characteristic, while others create a marvelous sense of escapism. Unfortunately, Irrational Man falls into the former category as much of the scenes simply ring false. This is mainly a result of script’s verbiage, as characters are consistently partaking in highly formalized exchanges that wring out any sort of potential suspense, or on the other side of the spectrum, a splash of entertaining humor.


Despite all of this, the performances are the true saving grace. Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone are both fantastic in their roles and counter some of the stiff dialogue with a joint realization of character, as well as beautiful line deliveries. Stone, in particular, is the stand-out; a scene in the latter half of the film, in which her character finds out a secret that Abe has been concealing gives way to an intense emotional reaction which forced me to forget, however briefly, much of the qualms there are to be had with the film as a whole.

Reteaming with Darius Khondji, the cinematography is occasionally stunning, especially in some of the film’s more naturalistic settings, and the penultimate scene is an absolute riot. Nonetheless, when the credits began to roll there’s a sense the entire affair was underwhelming, especially considering the substantial ensemble.

Irrational Man premiered at Cannes Film Festival and will be released on July 17th. See our complete coverage below.


Grade: C

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