Perhaps I checked out Woody Allen’s latest, “Irrational Man,” because of the director, but this slight film serves to reinforce my policy of always watching anything with Joaquin Phoenix in it. From “To Die For” way back when, to “Gladiator,” the wondrous “Her” and even “The Master” (yuck), Phoenix started out great and just gets better.
So even though “Irrational Man” is only so-so, Phoenix still makes his wobbly character real and memorable. He plays Abe, a famously brilliant philosophy professor and writer sleepwalking through his current teaching job. Even his renowned skirt chasing can’t lift his spirits, despite the best efforts of Parker Posey, a married coworker keen to seduce the reticent Abe.
When Jill (Emma Stone) takes his class and becomes his enthusiastic acolyte, we assume a lusty affair with an eager youngster will be Abe’s ticket to happiness, but things take a much darker turn instead. “Irrational Man” falls into the Random Acts of Violence category of Allen’s films, next to “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point.” Once more, the protagonist enacts his own moral vision to impart meaning in a seemingly random world.
Allen’s previous film, the silly but delightful “Magic in the Moonlight,” gave Emma Stone one of her most charming roles to date, but she falls utterly flat in this tale. Her would-be romance with Abe seems to exist simply because it was written on the page; onscreen, the two have no spark whatsoever. Abe is supposed to be depressed and cut off from the world, but Jill isn’t given this excuse.
Stone manages to squeeze a few laughs from her obvious schoolgirl obsession with Abe, specifically when she gushes about him to her family and her boyfriend, but the majority of her scenes are with Abe, and most are as dull as an actual conversation. Phoenix is so expressive that he seems to have written his own mini movie to act in, but Stone cannot rise to the occasion.
If only Woody Allen’s material varied as much as his quality, his prodigious output would be even more impressive. However, there’s something fascinating to me about how much better some of his movies are than others, like in some way his ability to do both amazing and lame work is an inspiration to other artists. I truly admire the way he keeps swinging and I’m sure we won’t have to wait long to see what he throws out next. We could easily predict the film’s subject matter, but we can’t predict what it will actually be like.