Woody Allen has experimented with so many genres throughout his years that most of his films essentially boil down to belonging in their own category. That is, a dramedy with romantic elements that gives the viewer an elusive sense of wanderlust upon viewing. Irrational Man is classic in all of Allen’s stylistic tendencies. It never goes above and beyond or has much to say, but it’s a breezy and light 90-minute affair that is still worth seeing.
Irrational Man has the bare essentials of a plot, but it keeps these essentials close to its chest. We’re introduced to Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a new professor at a liberal arts university who is trying to give his life a new meaning. After hitting it off with one of his students Jill (Emma Stone), he hatches a murder plot that in all honesty sounds pretty realistic (even for Allen). What follows is a 45-minute romantic comedy mixed with a 45-minute murder mystery. It’s Allen in nature, but with bits of Hitchcock thrown in.
Abe is quite a downer, and he fits all the checkboxes for ‘philosophy professor.’ He spews Kant and makes his students look as bored as we are watching the beginning of this movie. This makes the first half of the film pretty standard and unexpected. He mingles with the faculty and turns heads with his age-inappropriate relationship with Jill, but he is tormented deep within and is searching for a deeper will to live. While the murder plot can seem ridiculous on the surface, it’s mostly used as a device to kickstart Lucas’s second coming, and the film gets significantly better following. After planning this murder and carrying it through, Abe is a changed man. Phoenix reflects Abe’s change and becomes much more lighthearted and seems very pleased with himself the rest of the film. It’s a day-night change that might seem hasty but makes sense given what we understand about Abe.
Luckily Irrational Man never gets too preachy with its philosophical genre conventions. But like Allen’s last film, Magic in the Moonlight, it’s pretty standard affair. While the finale is unexpected and there are little bits of humor sprinkled in, but there simply isn’t much here to recommend other than a rental. Even Stone gives an unimpressive performance as the wide-eyed hopeless romantic smitten with Abe but unsure how to move on from her boyfriend Roy. While I’m sure Allen has much to say about finding meaning in life’s mechanical course of procedure, he doesn’t quite get there in Irrational Man.