Woody Allen, the Storyteller: ‘Irrational Man’

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.

Emma Stone - Joaquin Phoenix

Photo by Sabrina Lantos © 2015 Gravier Prods, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.

Joaquin Phoenix - Parker Posey

Photo by Sabrina Lantos © 2015 Gravier Prods, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.


Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024