In Irrational Man, Woody Allen treads familiar, morally ambiguous territory

Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix

Heaven forfend Immanuel Kant wander into a screening of Irrational Man, Woody Allen's latest dip into the perfect-crime oeuvre. The 18th-century philosopher's onerous moral standards, his belief in black-and-white rules for every situation regardless of circumstances, don't fare so well in the famously neurotic writer-director's vast body of work. The troubled figures in Woody Allen's movies are all about exceptions to the rule: Infidelity is wrong, but my marriage is on the rocks anyway; murder is even worse, but this guy really deserves it.

The latest exception is Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), an itinerant educator whose reputation as a brilliant mind, lost soul, and serial womanizer follows him from one campus to the next. His most recent post leads him to Braylin, a liberal arts school whose most beautiful student, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), happens to be infatuated with her new teacher before she's even met him. She's heard about his work, but what really draws her to him are the rumors about his alcoholism and shadowy past. The age gap between the two is typical of Allen's onscreen romances, ditto the dark turn their story slowly takes. What's newer and more refreshing are the lessons Abe imparts to his student, however unintentionally.

Kant wouldn't much approve of Abe, and Abe wouldn't care — women love him more than enough to make up for it. But his restlessness has morphed into anomie in recent years, and he's grown disenchanted with ivory-tower academia that offers little to no real-world benefits for its devoted practitioners. He lectures on Kant in an early scene but eventually begins speaking more of the existentialists, who wanted philosophy to actually affect (and improve) how people go about their daily lives. The book on Hegel he's struggling to finish probably won't do that, but something else might.

During lunch at a local diner, he and Jill overhear a woman bemoaning the bitter custody battle she's currently engaged in. The judge is friends with her ex-husband's divorce attorney, and all attempts to have the judge recused have been for naught. In her despair, she wishes cancer on the corrupt official. Abe is careful not to say so out loud, but he has a more direct plan of action.

Everything falls into place when it occurs to him. Up until now he's been suffering from writer's block and having trouble performing in the bedroom; the prospect of murdering a man instantly reinvigorates Abe, like a superhero who's just discovered his powers for the first time.

This smacks of The Stranger and Crime and Punishment — the existential dilemma of a man not feeling alive until taking another person's life — as well as echoes of Allen's previous attempts to map out the perfect cinematic crime. Abe's appreciation of his own plan is aesthetic as well as ethical; he thinks he'll improve the world in some small way, sure, but is even more pleased with how seamlessly he believes he can execute the deed. Abe speaks about the power that chance holds over us, an observation he shares with Jonathan Rhys Meyers' character in Allen's similarly lethal Match Point. By taking matters into his own hands and sapping chance of its power, Abe has asserted himself in the most direct manner possible. The thrill is enlivening, if short-lived.

This is where Irrational Man perks up, and also where we're meant to sit up in our seats in rapt attention. Allen is oddly fixated on the perfect crime, to be sure, but it is his focus on the inevitable fallout that brings his characters' narrative arcs to a close. It's how people react when their plans unravel that truly shows their quality, and Abe leaves something to be desired.

This is Phoenix's fifth time in front of the camera since the hiatus that followed his publicity stunt/performance art piece of a retirement. It's also his most muted. Abe's neuroses aren't played for self-analytical laughs the way those of some of Allen's other troubled men are. Ten years ago Abe might have been more self-deprecating and lighthearted about it all, but at this point he'd much prefer to drink single-malt and scare his students by showing up to one of their parties and playing Russian Roulette in front of them.

Stone's role at first appears to be that of the girlfriend-savior, so it comes as a relief that at no point are we led to believe that their union is a good idea — even Abe, lecherous opportunist that he is, admits as much time and again. He refuses Jill's advances for a long while. Though he reciprocates her feelings, he can't bring himself to act on them. It would be inappropriate, it wouldn't ultimately do either of them much good, and, more to the point, he isn't the kind of person she should be falling in love with in the first place. The most likely outcome of their getting together isn't her positivity rubbing off on him. It's his nihilism wearing her down.

Jill is willfully blind to this fact, but Allen does let her figure it out in good time. A young woman learning about herself is rare for Allen. Considering he releases a new movie every year, even a little tweak on the familiar formula is a pleasant surprise.

Whether the ultimate trajectory of Abe and Jill's relationship means Allen is in autocritique mode is difficult to say. His films seem less susceptible to outside influences than anyone else's. The consistency with which he produces variations on similar themes — even as sex abuse accusations resurface and his work is reconsidered as a result — is remarkable in its stubbornness. Irrational Man nonetheless seems a self-aware step, albeit a small one. The heart wants what the heart wants, as both Allen and his characters are taken to saying, and so does the filmmaker.