MixesWoody Allen’s usual light and dark tones
and seduction— come together in his 45th feature, Irrational Man, which may not be his very best recent work, but is by far not his worst, either.
As in so many Allen films, even if some parts don’t gel, others do. If Irrational Man falls short of late-career home runs like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, it also feels more fully realized than last year’s visually gorgeous but otherwise uneven period piece, Magic in theMoonlight.
As always, the casting is something any director would kill for. Here, we have Joaquin Phoenix as an existentially challenged philosophy professor, EmmaStone as his brighteyed student and Parker Posey as the sex-starved academic who forms the third this odd triangle.
The setting is Newport, Rhode Island, and that windswept, seasidetownlooks beautiful — no surprise, given the pedigree of cinematographer Darius Khondji. It’s summer session at a small college, and Abe Lucas (Phoenix) arrives to teach philosophy. Accomplished and brilliant, he’s also known for having affairs with students and swigging often from a flask in his pocket. “That shouldputsomeViagraintothe philosophy department,” an observer says of his arrival.
Abe is precisely the sort of disgruntled, unattainable intellectual that youngwomen can’t stay away from. That’s what happens to Jill (Stone),
of who’s beautiful, brilliant, kind and also an accomplished pianist. Bored with her cleancut boyfriend, she finds herself drawn to her bad-boy professor, who’s “so darned interesting and different”.
Meanwhile, frustrated wife Rita (Posey) has been dreaming of bedding Abe since his arrival, and will not be denied. Yet Abe’s long stretch of depression has left him with some issues in the sack.
What’s more, he’s exhibiting disturbing nihilistic tendencies. At a party, he gets hold of the family gun and plays a game of real Russian Roulette, hoping to teach some sort of metaphysical lesson.
Everything changes, though, when Abe and Jill overhear a conversation in a diner. A beleaguered mother is facing a court case that may cost her custody of her children; the judge is corrupt. If the bad judge were out of the picture, Abe reasons, wouldn’t the world be so much better? He immediately begins plotting a solution, and this dark quest fillshimwith anewzest for life.
Yes, it’s a leap — but Allen’s films are famous for such leaps. You either go with it or you don’t.
The same goes for Allen’s breezy mix of light and dark tones. The subject may seem too dark for comedy, the treatment too light for tragedy. But the director balances it in his own way, and as always, we can take it or leave it.