Listless philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Phoenix) is rejuvenated by planning a murder.
Woody Allen’s newie starts with the usual black-and-white title typeface (Windsor Light Condensed, font fans) but not the obligatory jazz ditty or classical movement. Instead it features the sounds of driving, perhaps a hint that for once Allen is jettisoning his hermetically sealed universe for something set in a recognisably real world. Well, he doesn’t. Irrational Man is firmly set in the Woodyverse — that witty erudite world where young hotties get besotted by “brilliant” older men — and delivers a middling but still enjoyable entry into the Allen Canon.
Given that Allen’s films are so concerned with the life of the mind, it is surprising he has not made more films based in academia. Here the setting is a fictional Rhode Island university, where respected philosophy tutor Abe Lucas is in a funk, pursued by fellow lecturer Rita (Parker Posey) and bright undergrad Jill (Emma Stone), who soon becomes Abe’s confidante. The initial set-up is heavy-going, too many overwritten philosophical debates boasting little in the way of wit or spark.
But, as with Crimes And Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Match Point, Allen shows himself to be adept with thriller mechanics (he should do a True Detective). Irrational Man is at its most enjoyable when Abe, overhearing a dinner conversation about a distraught mother being ill-served by a biased judge, decides to plan the perfect hit and finds a new lease of life in plotting death. The director has a blast with the minutiae of murder and relishes Abe’s attempts to improvise his way out of Jill’s growing suspicions. It goes without saying that the tiniest of details comes back to haunt him. The climax is a kicker.
Allen’s filmmaking remains consistently attractive — Darius Khondji’s images are warm and autumnal — and his repeated use of Ramsey Lewis Trio’s The In Crowd becomes effectively claustrophobic, but this is Woody cruising at a comfortable altitude without ever really hitting the heights. You could concoct a drinking game for every one of Woody’s favourite philosophical questions the film poses — sink a double every time someone mentions the pointlessness of existence! — but he doesn’t develop his arguments any further than previous films.
If Irrational Man has a point of difference, it’s in its lead. Joaquin Phoenix makes for an engaging central figure, ignoring Allen-esque speech patterns and nervous energy, giving Abe some heft. It is in Emma Stone’s Jill that you feel the vitality — not to mention conscience — of the filmmaker.
A thriller in the key of Woody. The same old, same old but still entertaining.