Incomparably stylish and well-paced, Woody Allen’s newest film “Irrational Man” concludes the writer-director’s “Dostoyevsky trilogy” and marks a personal best in his career. Loosely based on the Russian author’s novel “Crime and Punishment” (which is directly referenced in the film), “Irrational Man” stars Joaquin Phoenix as the existentially depressed, philandering, alcoholic philosophy professor Abe Lucas at Braylin College, a New England liberal arts university. Emma Stone plays Jill Pollard, an intelligent student of Abe’s who becomes infatuated with his intelligence, sophistication, and detached personality.
Although the film is narrated from the perspectives of Abe and Jill via voice-over, it still manages to strike a delicate balance between insightful and overwrought. Allen’s impeccable writing places the audience directly into the heads of his characters, while the constantly recurring jazz riff of The Ramsey Lewis Trio's "The In Crowd" serves as the film’s rhythmic backbone.
Phoenix’s character is that of the archetypal emotionally broken intellectual, but his idiosyncrasies bring nuance and life to a stock role. By the film’s second act, after Abe and Jill overhear a conversation that forever alters his meaningless existence, Phoenix effects a dramatic transformation of his character into a meticulous sociopath. Meanwhile, Stone’s performance extends beyond her initial wide-eyed, feigned innocence into serious dramatic territory, as her character is forced to confront serious realities by the film’s conclusion. The clear chemistry between the two actors is what carries the film: Their sexual tension, intellectual rapport, and moral disagreements serve as the crux of conflict.
Throughout the film, Abe constantly discusses the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the importance of situational ethics in comparison to Kant’s categorical imperative. Luck is another particularly important theme—one striking scene has Abe pull the trigger of a six-chamber revolver five times in a row during a game of Russian roulette. Even as Abe makes a life-changing decision during the film’s second act, Allen manages to maintain the film’s upbeat tone. Whether he ultimately endorses Abe’s situational ethics or Kant’s categorical imperative is unclear—the many twists and turns of the film’s ending are strongly influenced by mere chance. Regardless of one’s philosophical bent, the sheer pleasure of riding along through “Irrational Man” is incontrovertible—like Abe, the film just has a certain inexplicable charm.
—Staff writer Alan R. Xie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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