Woody Allen feels no need to paint on a giant canvas. He’s content to follow his imagination wherever it leads him, whether it results in a complex, multi-character piece or a tightly-focused narrative. Irrational Man falls into the latter category and while it’s a minor effort on the filmmaker’s résumé, it’s still quite watchable and benefits from perfect casting.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a philosophy professor with a checkered past (and a colorful reputation) who accepts a job at a small Rhode Island liberal arts college. It’s clear from his lectures on Kant and Kierkegaard that he’s a gifted teacher who has done much thinking about the role that chance plays in our existence.
Student Emma Stone is smitten with him and finds his faults and peccadilloes endearing rather than off-putting. He tries to discourage her obvious crush, all the more because she has a devoted boyfriend. Besides, he’s happy to sleep with a randy member of the faculty (Parker Posey).
But Phoenix’s emotional problems gnaw at him: he’s bottled up, frustrated and unproductive. Then a chance encounter at a coffee shop inspires him to try something he’s never done: to take action that can change the world, in a small way, and offer him a sense of satisfaction he’s never found before.
Irrational Man doesn’t bear, or necessarily warrant, close scrutiny. Allen’s casual and inconsistent use of narration (by both Phoenix and Stone) is as odd as his insistent reuse of Ramsey Lewis’ record “The In Crowd” on the soundtrack (a dramatic break from his longtime reliance on traditional jazz music).
My biggest problem is that I didn’t buy the climactic story twist—a turn of events I can’t reveal, even though the film has been playing for several weeks.
It’s a pleasure to watch an actor like Joaquin Phoenix tackle a role unlike any he’s played before. He disappears into the part and is thoroughly believable. Stone is equally good as a fresh-faced college student who falls under his spell.
I’m not a complete pushover for Woody Allen’s work, although I cut him a lot of slack. For me, Irrational Man is the equivalent of a chapter in an anthology of short stories, some stronger than others. It isn’t great, but I’m still glad I saw it. I enjoyed the performances, the fresh Rhode Island locations, and the musings of a prolific and unpredictable storyteller who enjoys spinning tales.