Irrational movie goer: Watch Woody Allen contemplate the meaning of life. Again.
Your interest in seeing Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s newest film, will largely depend on your level of interest in existential philosophy. Allen does give us fair warning as to what he’s up to, though; his chosen title shares the same name as William Barrett’s seminal 1958 book Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, an introduction to the philosophy’s basic concepts and major thinkers. So if you were on the edge of your seat during your Philosophy 101 days, then this film’s for you; if not, then you might want to skip this class – er, film.
After last year’s charming but lightweight Magic in the Moonlight, Allen seems to be trying to move toward a more serio-comic picture again, similar to how the excellent Blue Jasmine followed his dismal To Rome with Love. But Allen breaks no new ground here, and his picture is too arch to effectively contemplate the cerebral questions that he seems to want to grapple with. What he presents us with here is a despondent, impotent (literally and figuratively) philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix, in the role Allen would have cast himself in earlier in his career), who comes alive when he makes an outrageous – and morally questionable – decision after overhearing a conversation in a diner.
To say more would be to give away too much of the plot, which is best left for the viewer to discover, as the nicely paced story itself is one of the picture’s highpoints. Suffice to say that Abe, after joining the faculty of Braylin, a fictional Rhode Island liberal arts college, attracts the attention of both Jill, a bright and earnest young student (Emma Stone), and Rita (Parker Posey), an unhappily married chemistry professor. How Abe and his actions end up affecting not just Abe himself, but also Rita, Jill, her sweet boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley), and others, is the heart of Allen’s story.
But the underlying themes of this narrative are already familiar to Allen fans: how can we give our lives meaning and purpose? What is the nature of morality? Allen has explored these issues much more sharply in previous films like Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors, which is the film that Irrational Man most closely resembles. Indeed, the idea for Irrational Man almost feels like it came from a middling, very rough first draft of that screenplay, and Allen certainly brings no fresh insights here to the similar weighty questions he raised in those earlier, better pictures.
At least, though, the film is lovely to look at; Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, stands in for Braylin, and will no doubt receive a rash of applications from high school seniors everywhere after they see it so idyllically portrayed here. The film may actually unintentionally work better as a campus satire than as a morality tale; it might make you nostalgic for your undergraduate days, as it would fit well on a double bill with other academic send-ups like Wonder Boys or Liberal Arts.
And the likable cast tackles Allen’s heady material with aplomb; Phoenix can play existential angst in his sleep, and Emma Stone, Allen’s latest muse, has charm to spare. Parker Posey, though, steals every scene she’s in; she brings vulnerable complexity and wry humor to a role that could have been a cliché in lesser hands. It’s a treat to see her on screen again, in a particularly juicy role.
But as thoughtful as Allen no doubt hoped his film would be, in the end, it’s a mostly forgettable exercise in recycled themes and well-worn plot devices. Allen aficionados and philosophy students will be this picture’s biggest audience; if you’re new to Allen’s oeuvre and want to start with this one because you think it sounds interesting, I won’t dissuade you entirely, as it’s entertaining enough. And Time magazine has even given you a primer you can study before you hit the cinema, in case you don’t know your Heideggers from your Kierkegaards.
Irrational Man opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema, and next Friday, July 31st, more widely throughout the Bay Area.