The reliability of Woody Allen’s per annum output has more or less caused critics and audiences alike to lose sight of the magnitude of each singular work that comes from the septuagenarian auteur. As was the case with last year’s Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man has already been shelved and classified as a decidedly minor Allen film. The critical argot typically delineates Allen’s work as regurgitating from past ideas, and with Irrational Man one can certainly see the jigsaw tiles of earlier Allen films at play (most notably from Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point). But these thematic preoccupations and repetitions do not necessarily indicate that they are pointing to the same larger picture; similar ideas do not necessarily breed the same results. With Irrational Man, Allen’s insistence on plundering the well yields a remarkably breezy yet jarring film, shedding new light on old ideas.
Where his credits sequence and font function as an authoritative stamp of the auteur’s presence, you’ll immediately notice the dissonant quietness of Irrational Man’s muted opening. Not known for his silences, it’s Allen’s use of sound that plays an intricate role in the picture’s tonal juggling act. Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “The In-Crowd” appropriates the frame as philosophy professor Abe Lucas (a paunchy Joaquin Phoenix) begins to narrate. Yet another dynamic contrast in sound occurs as the jovial tune that dominates the soundscape is met by Abe’s bellicose tirade on the futility of life. It’s a cruel mismatch in tonal trajectory that indicates a twitchy, though ultimately playful stretch that introduces Abe to a fictional university in Rhode Island. Jill (Emma Stone), an impressionable undergrad (is there any other kind?), finds herself taking Abe’s philosophy course and is immediately enamored by the mythopoeia of the professor – scenes where students speak of Abe’s philandering and philanthropy highlight the welcome embellishments afforded to the drunkard professor.
Jill’s boyfriend is quick to note, “I can see where this is going” as Jill and Abe quickly cultivate a friendship. Yet Abe is reticent, primarily as his social impotence produces a sexual one. Also courted by a colleague named Rita (played by Parker Posey), Abe still finds himself at the throes of depression and alcoholism, eventually leading himself to accept the randomness of a game of Russian roulette as a means of tempting faith. Yet it’s through an incident of happenstance, where Jill and Abe overhear a story from a divorcee in the midst of a custody battle, that Abe’s anti-heroic/Dostoevskian origin story takes shape.
Reinvigorated by prospect of undertaking a new experience, Abe initiates a plan to produce the perfect murder. The act itself proves to be of less interest than the consequences of the action, as the self-satisfied antihero actively relishes in the opportunity to speak of the crime in the third-person. One of the film’s most mischievous scenes involves a dinner conversation with Abe, Jill, and her parents discussing the headline murder. As Jill, unaware of Abe’s crime, tries to piece together the circumstances of the event, we see Abe egg her on to produce a thoughtful recreation of the event. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking and acting; a strategically staged example of warm compositions, the movement and position of bodies within the frame, and the actors who gesticulate and actualize the internal.
This sheds light on two notable aspects of Irrational Man: Joaquin Phoenix’s exceptional performance and cinematographer Darius Khondji’s vital contributions to Allen’s recent output. Phoenix’s presence is completely atypical of the proxy Allen character. He’s reserved and at times utterly charmless (which has its own obstacles to overcome, primarily as he is the object of affection for the two leading women). But it’s a morose, despondent, and Anthony Perkins in Psycho kind of turn, whereby the actor develops a childlike sense of glee through his eventual reawakening. And his size! Sporting an aggressive gut, it’s the sort of committed performance that highlights the idiosyncrasies that an actor of Phoenix’ caliber can bring to the material; he’s genuinely disturbing.
As Khondji’s partnership with Allen dates back to as early as 2003’s Anything Else, it’s not until 2011’s Midnight in Paris that you see this relationship truly complement Allen’s sensibility. There’s a tangible visual sophistication on display, primarily in the way that Khondji can illuminate nighttime scenes. And subsequent films (with the exception of To Rome with Love) have exponentially improved upon Allen’s preceding film. As lush and stunning as Magic in the Moonlight was, the contemporary carnival sequence in Irrational Man certainly ranks as one of the most luminous and visually surreal sequences in all of Allen’s filmography.
Yet these subtler and gentler departures aren’t quite in the same vein as something as grandiose as, say, a powerhouse performance from Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. Which is to say that Irrational Man is a quieter and more subdued film than the films that typically generate critical goodwill. Yet Irrational Man remains a notably sophisticated film in Allen’s canon; a film of controlled restraint and dynamic tonal leaps. While the ideas that populate the film are familiar for those who have perused Allen’s filmography (or picked up a copy of just about any Dostoevsky novel), it’s the manner in which he presents them that’s so surprising. Forty-five features over nearly 50 years and he still has that capacity to surprise.