Woody Allen Finds Dark Comedy With "Irrational Man"

After last year’s disappointingly drowsy “Magic In The Moonlight,” Woody Allen strikes back with “Irrational Man,” an erratic but compelling murder comedy cut from the same cloth as Richard Linklater’s “Bernie.” Like Linklater’s film – both occupying an endangered subgenre – there isn’t much mystery here. Motivations are clearly laid out and crimes are executed, with the drama hanging mostly on the ability of the cast.

Has Allen ever assembled an able cast.

Best living film actor Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”) affords all of his projects a significant creative head start, and with Emma Stone (“Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)”) and Parker Posey (“Superman Returns”) in the mix, Allen would have to fumble in a big way to lay his second straight egg. He doesn’t.

The screenplay follows potbellied philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Phoenix) through an existential crisis, cleverly mirroring his mental state every step of the way. Struggling to find meaning in his new job, Abe delivers unenthusiastic lectures to mostly unenthusiastic students. Minus one.

Co-ed Jill (Emma Stone) is a nearly as lost a soul as Abe, quickly finding herself smitten by his cool, unaffected disposition. Like twenty-somethings tend to do, Jill mythologizes Abe into something he couldn’t hope to be, all but ignoring her loving boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) in her pursuit of an obvious unreality. Obvious to everyone but her.

The hook here is that “Irrational Man” begins as a typically Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy, with relationships blooming from neuroses and characters talking themselves into emotionally compromised positions. In fact, Allen is a little too good at faking us out. The rom-com angle becomes tedious by the twenty-minute mark, begging for a turn.

Blessedly, that turn comes soon after in the form of a seemingly mundane diner conversation. Once an eavesdropping Abe hears of a wrongdoing by a local judge, he’s finally found his purpose. He’ll rid the world of this person, doing the populace at large a favor he’ll never get credit for. Aided by a tautly written inner monologue, Phoenix hawks Abe’s ongoing rationalization like a master salesman, all while maintaining a sense of misplaced pride and selflessness.

He’s hilariously broken, of course, taking Jill’s similarly fractured psyche as an endorsement of his deranged plan. With the two caught in a devil’s dance of boredom and instability, the script cleverly fashions the resulting plot points after Abe’s newly “unblocked” mental state. The story begins to flow freely, uninhibited by things like reason and fixed morality.

The role of Rita (Posey), a science professor starved for human contact, might be written in service of some overly convenient plot points, but the actress absolutely makes it her own. Upon seducing an obviously addled Abe, she finds herself a front row ticket to his eventual meltdown. Posey knows when to match Phoenix’s intensity and when to let him go untethered, ending up the perfect foil to Stone’s purposefully naïve performance.

Joaquin Phoenix has as tight a grasp as ever on the film he’s in, playing with Allen’s dialogue with verve and tenacity. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, which is always true with Phoenix, but here he singlehandedly raises an interesting role to an essential one, a character that can stand with the best of Woody Allen’s disturbed leads. It’s not quite on par with Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn in “Blue Jasmine,” but it’s close.

The film feels minor as a whole, but only because that’s what it is – a snapshot of madness and the way it manifests itself differently in different people. It’s not written as a grand statement, nor is it a commentary. It’s a simple, small-scale black comedy, one that scratches an itch that more filmmakers would be wise to scratch.

Some of the tonal shifts are more jarring than they should be, but it’s a small price to pay for a frequently funny crime movie that pairs one of Hollywood’s great storytellers with one of its great performers – one that fans of Allen and Phoenix both would be foolish to miss.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: July 17, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Woody Allen
Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley
MPAA Rating: R (for some language and sexual content)