Death. Woody Allen’s obsession with life’s closing fade to black remains his most studied subject this side of neuroses and the women they attract. Yet, sometimes when staring into that abyss, it occasionally looks back with its most seductively romantic form: the perfect murder. It’s in this tradition that Irrational Man is in fact quite rational with its homicidal tendencies.
As a topic that Allen has offered several visceral cinematic dissertations on before in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, the new high-minded academia setting of Irrational Man makes it appear at first glance like another schooling in the matter. But the film is actually a surrender to his pulpier passions. More (melo)drama than reasoned storytelling, Irrational‘s set-up of a philosophy professor who supposes the perfect murder owes quite a bit to the complete Hitchcock syllabus and the Strangers on a Train case study in particular. But much like that picture, everything onscreen is thinly constructed around the murder(s)…to the point of precarious neglect.
Marketed as a romantic comedy centered on Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, the romance is actually the film’s most absurd aspect. No stranger to utilizing the malcontented professor and his enraptured ingénue student trope, this Allen convention becomes explicit between the two leads and their after-class liaison. Yet, for a film built so much around these two carrying the picture with an unrequited passion that can become lethal, it proves almost fatal how nonthreatening their attraction really is.
The film introduces both of them immediately via dual voice over narration. Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a burned out philosophy professor whose ethics are about as far away from Immanuel Kant as one is bound to get. Despite having served in Greenpeace and going around the world to make a difference, by middle age he has graduated to ruminating at the bottom of his Scotch bottle. He’s so dour, he can barely lift his arms to swat back the intense infatuation he’s offered by a married professor named Rita (Parker Posey) or his star pupil in one Jill Pollard (Stone).
Jill, the daughter of two other college professors, is pleasantly bored with her sweet fiancé when she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Abe. And despite his protests (and that she is an undergrad in his class), she helps him find excitement with long walks through film festivals and museum tutorials. One day, they overhear a stranger’s tragic story of abuse and childhood neglect, which has been facilitated by a corrupt and apathetic judge. Sensing that he can finally make a legitimate difference in the world, Abe is reinvigorated by the prospect of planning the murder of a corrupt bureaucrat while also finding the necessary vitality to woo his unsuspecting student. Of course, if one murder can make the world a better place, why not two?
Irrational Man is the most straightforward of Allen’s murder films, acting as a May/December romance until it snows on everything else. And thank goodness for that chilly touch, because it is only when the details are carefully laid for each of the murderous set-pieces that the movie finds its odd (and fleeting) moments of unabashed life.
To describe the death scenes would be to give the game away, but as the wheels start turning in Abe’s head, and later Jill as she begins to doubt the virtuousness of her tutor, the movie slices with a sinewy movement and comic bite through an otherwise distracted pacing. Unfortunately, it isn’t until halfway through the picture that Abe starts dabbling in poisons.
With the second of their consecutive collaborations, Stone has evidently become Woody’s new muse, and he and cinematographer Darius Khondji photograph her with as much romance as the picturesque beaches she and Phoenix stroll along. Clearly molded on the tale of two Charlies dynamic from Hitchcock’s own Shadow of a Doubt, the age difference is even likely intended to serve a purpose this time. But unlike that subtler World War II influence, both the teacher and the student are more interesting when they’re doing their alternative investigations in the film’s later sections—one the murderer, and the other his unknowing pursuer. The real poison for the movie is forcing them to bat eyes in the other’s direction.
Indeed, for the more captivating deaths to occur, many liberties must be accepted by the audience for the first hour of the picture, not least of which is the pretense that Phoenix and Stone share any kind of heat when together, especially since Abe embodies the ultimate realization of the misanthropic and miserable Allen cliché of supposed intellectual magnetism.
This is not to say Phoenix is bad in the picture. In fact, he’s terrific as the character, bringing a pleasurable intoxication to his sad sack whining. In the mercurial actor’s hands, Abe is quite droll in his lethargic humbuggery, only coming outside of his own head when it’s time to taste blood and other lively sensations. But Abe Lucas is also one of the most repellent of Allen’s protagonists ever put onscreen. Thus the script’s insistence on his apparently maddening charisma, much like the overall plot, is more labored and deadly than the actual premeditated murders.
With a cast of actors who are all too eager to dig six feet deep into roles and dialogue meant to be more compelling than their big screen and big budget July contemporaries, it’s a shame that together this duo and their script make a less than satisfying whole. For Woody Allen lovers and completists, the slight Irrational Man offers a few thrills, but a murder can only be as perfect as its execution. And here, the falling blade’s aim is quizzically off-center.
Irrational Man opens Friday, July 17. In the meantime, chat with me about your favorite Woody Allen movies on Twitter.