Irrational Man is the perfect case study for what Woody Allen’s output has become in recent years: frustratingly erratic. Frustrating, because in some respects, you can clearly see a master at work – the crafty sensibility of a writer-director who gave us gems such as Annie Hall and Manhattan. And when you are about to convince yourself that maybe, just maybe, this might be Allen’s return to form, he surreptitiously blindsides you with the sort of lethargy in execution that has characterised much of his recent work (case in point: the absolute horror that was Magic in the Moonlight).1
We are introduced to Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a philosophy professor with a self-destructive streak, as he begins his teaching position at a university in Rhode Island. He suffers from a severe case of existential ‘despair’ (not in our everyday linguistic sense, but in the way that continental philosophers such as Kierkegaard have used the term). Lucas’ search for meaning and purpose is all-consuming, leading him to commit deliberately risky and self-sabotaging act that make him resemble more a struggling alcoholic than an academic. Jill (Emma Stone), one of Lucas’ students, who is writing a paper on the philosophical randomness of chance, is drawn to his self-destructive demeanour, despite having a loving boyfriend. Lucas’ fellow colleague, professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), is also inexplicably attracted to him and wants to start a torrid affair. The rest of the narrative follows Abe Lucas’ attempts to find an escape from his existential despair and the impact the two women competing for his affections have on his search for meaning.
One of the recurring themes in Allen’s body of work is the continued fascination with and the mythologisation of the Intellectual. He is fascinated by existential questions and his characters often quantify everyday problems in existential terms – whether it is through his own slightly neurotic on-screen persona or otherwise. In a fictional speech first published in the New York Times called My Speech to the Graduates (1979), Allen remarked: “Put in its simplest form, the problem is: How is it possible to find meaning in a finite world given my waist and shirt size?” However, Allen’s blatant overindulgence in his favourite thematic subject leaves us with a lacklustre script that presents its lead characters in extremely broad strokes.
One major result of Allen’s overindulgence is how the two lead female characters – Rita and Jill, played by Posey and Stone respectively – end up being represented. Allen channels his inner Phillip Roth to set up the damaged male intellectual trope: a middle-aged man once full of promise and hidden wisdom now finds himself going through a crisis. This ‘man of mystery’ routine is of course, so enigmatic that women can’t help but fall for him in the hope that they can somehow ‘reform’ or ‘fix’ him. Essentially, this reduces female characters to plot devices, robbing them of well-etched personalities.
The use of the trope is indicative of lazy writing, but the problem here is compounded by thoroughly unconvincing execution. It’s bewildering then; given the amount of screen-time that Allen sets aside to set-up his damaged protagonist, that he doesn’t even execute the trope well. Joaquin Phoenix seems to have been typecast as the ‘next-door neighbour with an alcohol problem’ kind of character, and intuitively, this role appears tailor-made for him. Unfortunately, he sleepwalks through the role, not channelling the inner brooding that we’ve come to associate with his performances. He’s in no mood to even try and feign coming across as some sort of debased intellectual. This makes the first half of the screenplay look like a B-grade parody of Woody Allen’s worst indulgences realised on screen. Instead of some enigmatic damaged intellectual, you have a struggling alcoholic who name-drops philosophers and plays up his misanthropic cynicism in a very teenage attempt to come across as ‘cool’. To make matters worse, you have two female characters competing for the affections of a male character who isn’t really convincing as an intellectual or a self-destructive personality: the two traits being the whole premise of the supposed attraction in the first place.
Prima facie, this might appear unintentionally comical, but the implicit insidiousness of this kind of narrative shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s bad enough that the two female leads are blatant plot devices in the film, but the lacklustre execution of the damaged male intellectual trope makes them the target of a long and rather unfunny joke. They are left pining for a man who isn’t really that damaged or an intellectual. It’s sad to see Allen writing such borderline insulting female characters because his filmography has proved that he’s capable of writing some nuanced female roles.
What’s equally unfortunate and frustrating is that Emma Stone – being Woody Allen’s newfound muse – seems to have found herself typecast as the annoyingly reductive female character responsible for ‘fixing’ the male protagonist in his films. Stone seems very uncomfortable in this role, unsure of what note to strike in her performance. It doesn’t help that she and Phoenix have absolutely no chemistry together whatsoever. As Jill, the usually great Stone gives one of the worst performances of her career. The low bar set in the performance department means that Parker Posey, who plays her part according to the script and its limited scope, actually manages to stand out.
The film does manage to redeem itself somewhat when it does a complete 180 degree turn in the second half and changes its dramatic tone, transforming into a screwball crime caper kind of narrative. It’s here that Allen’s more assured cinematic sensibilities come to the fore. Allen’s trademark playfulness with music choices – the contrast between Lewis and Bach for example – strike a unique rhythm in the crime caper exegesis late in the second half. Darius Khondji’s beautiful cinematography, with scattered wide-screen shots, gives the film a clear Woody Allen visual stamp. When it does all come together, admittedly, the outcome is mesmerising: the clever climax executed deftly redeems the film to some extent. However, these sparks of brilliance come few and far between.