Paunchy and laconic, Joaquin Phoenix mumbles and mopes his way through the first half of Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, seeming to channel Morrissey from his first ragged moment onscreen as the self-flagellating miserablist Abe Lucas. Abe is a radical philosophy professor newly installed at a leafy Ivy League college, and he takes the world’s existential questions a bit too personally. As he informs us in voice-over narration, he is “bored by the meaninglessness of day-to-day existence,” and he admits that “much of philosophy is verbal masturbation.”
The title of the Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck could just as easily apply to Phoenix’s defeatist sad sack. Abe enjoys wallowing in despair, and seems bored at a campus party until a game of Russian roulette presents itself. He is both impotent and alcoholic, reputations that precede his employment at the university, and he is brutally honest when he tells a friend that “If I met someone now, I’m too far gone to appreciate her.”
Leave it up to a Woody Allen movie to offer this uncharismatic brooder his choice of sexual dishes both hot and cold, aged and newly cooked. Parker Posey’s Rita, a chemistry professor recognized for her promiscuity, practically jumps his bones at their first introduction, and henceforth refuses to take his “meh” for an answer. Even less credibly, Emma Stone, as Abe’s apparently brightest pupil Jill, is equally drawn to her teacher like a magnet to an electric car, even if said car has a broken fender and runs on half its wheels. I guess I needn’t bother to mention that Stone is 14 years Phoenix’s junior; considering that in Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight last year, she played love interest to the 54-year-old Colin Firth, we must take this film’s casting as progress.
Unhealthy campus romances between professors and students do happen, of course. Methinks they just don’t happen like this. Irrational Man is another unconvincing fantasia from Allen’s male gaze, where the charmless, anhedonic narcissist with nothing to offer but intellectual density gets his pick of the litter. Allen even grants Abe the film’s ethical high ground by allowing him to “resist” Jill’s increasing seductions, at least for a while. Jill is a supposedly cultured cosmopolitan, with appetites for equestrianism and Russian literature, but her schoolgirl crush on Abe makes her seem desperate and juvenile — the film’s irrational woman.
Finally, at around 40 minutes into the picture, an actual story interrupts this rarefied reverie. While sitting in a diner, Jill and Abe eavesdrop on a sobbing mother in an adjacent booth, who is describing to sympathetic ears an act of apparent injustice. Abe decides, then and there, that he will rectify this miscarriage of justice by eliminating the judge in question, by whatever means necessary.
The idea of supposedly moral men considering and then perpetrating amoral acts is nothing new in Allen’s cinema; his best dramas, from Crimes and Misdemeanors to Match Point, are predicated on it. But Allen views it afresh from Phoenix’s blinkered eyes. For Abe, whose life is bound in ephemeral concepts, the process of murdering someone is the ultimate way of translating, per his own words, the “theoretic world of philosophical bull—-” into the messiness of reality.
The act of plotting the perfect murder and then discussing it, a la Hitchcock’s Rope, finally gives Abe a purpose in life. And just as it revives his libido and joie de vivre, it also rejuvenates Irrational Man from a font of tepid sexism into an engrossing, darkly funny parable of karmic retribution.
Allen still has no conception of the reality of modern college life, the cadences and diction of millennials, or even the ubiquity of 21st-century technology: His characters still rely on newspapers for breaking news. But at least in fundamental matters of life and death and crime and punishment, Allen the philosopher still has insights to share — if only Allen the misbegotten romantic would step out of the way.