Woody Allen is back in the land of “Crimes & Misdemeanors” and “Match Point” with “Irrational Man.” His latest film, a morality tale murder mystery, was shown this morning in Cannes for the press and tonight opens out of competition. I thought it was certainly on the level of “Blue Jasmine,” a real Woody winner that is disturbing and totally involving. I predict a massive ovation in the Palais des Festivals tonight.
The title “Irrational Man” is a nod to William Barrett, an American legend who brought the existentialists (Sartre, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc) here in 1958 with a book of the same name. The movie also embraces Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who wrote about ethics and lying. Much is made of all of this in the film but you don’t have to know more than Philosophy 101 to get this movie.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a washed up alcoholic womanizing philosophy profession who arrives at a liberal arts college in Newport, Rhode Island with more baggage than Kim Kardashian on a weekend holiday. Right away he gets involved with two women: Parker Posey is a married professor on campus who pursues him in an affair; Emma Stone is a student who falls for him before they even meet.
As Phoenix’s Abe Lucas devolves (he’s drunk, impotent and not much of what he was) he searches for a way to restart his life. He and Stone’s Jill overhear a conversation in a diner that makes the movie take a sharp left. “Irrational Man” is not about a love triangle, but about Abe’s overreach for redemption. He does something terrible, tries to rationalize it, and must live with consequences.
Woody’s screenplay is deceptive because it’s much more sophisticated than it appears at first. Forget all this older man-younger woman stuff (Phoenix is hardly an old man). The movie is about Abe thinking he’s avenging a wrong (we never learn if that happens) and in the course of this, committing the most egregious act. Is he a hero or a villain? Or just a self-absorbed slob who cannot navigate life?
The fact remains that Phoenix is exceptional, Stone does maybe her best work, and Parker Posey makes us wonder why she’s never been in a Woody Allen film before. The three of them anchor the film perfectly. There are several good supporting players, including Ethan Phillips and Betsy Aidem as Stone’s parents. Plus, Bette Midler’s real life daughter, Sophie von Haselberg, makes a sweet feature film debut as one of Stone’s student friends. She’s got a million dollar cherubic smile.
“Irrational Man” could teeter toward what we call the “smaller” Woody Allen films. But it’s a movie of ideas that are framed in actual plot– very economically told. It falls into place much like “Match Point,” effortlessly. And even though you know what Abe is going to do– and he does it– you still want to see what the outcome is. The ending, which you can guess once you’re toward the end, but I won’t tell you here– is sort of perfect for an existentialist.
Allen punctuates the film not with his usual New Orleans jazz or classic songbook, but Ramsey Lewis’s jazz instrumental “The In Crowd” and other Lewis numbers that give the story an out of time feel. Cell flip phones are used occasionally but otherwise this movie could be taking place at any time before smartphones ruined our lives.