IRRATIONAL MAN, drama, rated R, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles
Kierkegaard and Kant, Dostoevsky and Heidegger, the categorical imperative and situational ethics and existentialism — Woody Allen surrounds himself with a few of his favorite things in Irrational Man, the latest entry in his movie-of-the-year program. And like almost everything that program produces, this is intelligent entertainment of an above-average stripe. It’s a return to the precincts of Allen’s moral dilemma movies like
Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. What it is not is a comedy. That’s not to say it’s without wit. But philosophy is the driving force at work here. And the man in the driver’s seat is Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), who is arriving to take a job in the philosophy department of Braylin College, a small liberal arts institution in Newport, Rhode Island (played by Newport’s Salve Regina University). Abe is a man whose notoriety for drinking and womanizing has preceded him, as has his reputation as a brilliant, original thinker, and he soon has tongues wagging around campus and students flocking to his lectures.
But Abe is not a happy man. In his younger days he threw himself into saving the world in trouble spots like Darfur and New Orleans. Now he’s retreated into cynicism. He is also mired in a related sexual dysfunction, a condition soon put to the test by Rita (Parker Posey), a science professor stuck in an unsatisfying marriage.
This being a Woody Allen movie, another candidate for the middle-aged Abe’s affections and bed is a young saucer-eyed undergraduate named Jill (Emma Stone, a holdover from Allen’s previous picture). Jill has a nice boyfriend named Roy (Jamie Blackley) who’s crazy about her, but he’s beginning to get the memo as she grows more and more obsessed with the exotic new professor.
Abe may be without illusions and hope — he terrifies a party of students by putting a pistol to his head in a demonstration of Russian roulette — but he’s not entirely without moral scruples. He keeps Jill out of his bed for as long as he can, but you know how these things are. And then his lust for life, and for lust, is rekindled when he makes an existential decision to take an irreversible action after he and Jill overhear in a diner a stranger’s desperate tale of a bitter custody battle, a vindictive husband, and a corrupt, abusive judge.
The philosophical byways of this movie are intriguing to travel, but the journey never generates much heat. Allen’s scenes lay out the issues neatly, but you are always aware of the armature beneath them. The characters and the situations are elements of the philosophical machinery, but they don’t make much of a claim on the emotions. Still, Phoenix holds the screen with his overhanging paunch and his searching intellect. Stone is appealing, sharp, and inquisitive, and Posey steals the show with her predatory restlessness.
Allen, meanwhile, has left this for your consideration, and moved on to his next project. — Jonathan Richards
Sweet and lowdown: Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix