Review: Irrational Man (2015)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey

Release Date: 11th September 2015 (UK)

The type of relationship that Woody Allen often portrays in his films is something few people would want to experience in real life. But boy is it entertaining to watch his characters as they struggle to understand themselves, each other and why life is so complicated and mysterious (spoilers: it’s like anything else). Irrational Man continues this trend by introducing us to a tangle of relationships and also pushes the envelope one step further by adding a murder on top of everything.

Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a depressed philosophy professor who has given up on finding a reason to live and has taken up drinking instead. When he moves to a small town to teach at the local university, that causes quite a stir among the academic community as everyone sees his nihilistic worldview as enigmatic. Abe immediately attracts the attention of his fellow lecturer Rita (Parker Posey) and his student Jill (Emma Stone), both of whom seem determined to help him begin to appreciate life once again.

The two women have distinctive and very different personalities, both masterfully characterized by Allen and the two actresses. Jill’s relationship with Abe begins as purely platonic (as she has a boyfriend) but naturally fails to stay that way. Jill’s denial of her attraction to the professor rings painfully true to life and Emma Stone does a great job portraying the uncertainties of that age and the gradual acceptance of her own unpreparedness to commit. Rita on the other hand is married and almost comically desperate to have some excitement in her life. As we find out later in the film, she is willing to accept anything (even murder!), as long as she gets to feel alive again. And she has chosen to do so through Abe, which is oddly ironic, given his own problems.

Much like the protagonists we are used to seeing in Woody Allen’s films, Abe is detached and self-aware. However, in his case this does not result in lots of socially awkward interactions, but instead leads to something much deeper and darker. After overhearing a woman saying she is about to lose her child because of a biased judge, Abe makes it his goal to help by killing the judge. You’re probably thinking: “Now, where did that come from? And how does it fit in?” Well, it turns out Irrational Man is really a film about the morality of murder and about finding rejuvenation in this most irrational of acts. It is a bit of a sharp turn in the narrative, but don’t expect to suddenly see a suspense-filled thriller or a murder mystery. Irrational Man retains the tone that we are used to associating with Woody Allen and begins to resemble a grim comedy, especially after a particularly whimsical murder-planning montage.

The relationships between characters remain at the heart of the film. It’s just that the stakes are higher now and the situations are both comic and suspenseful at the same time. Watching the realistic characters struggle with slightly absurd situations is quite entertaining and it leads to a satisfying (if unsurprising) conclusion. Ultimately, Irrational Man does not go further than exploring that single idea of murder and morality, but it does so with the finesse and insight that we’ve come to expect from Woody Allen. As long as you don’t go into the cinema expecting plots within plots and themes within themes, Irrational Man can be a great experience that will leave you pondering some of the uncomfortable truths of life.


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