Overview: A philosophy professor searches for the meaning of life. Sony Pictures Classics; 2015; Rated R; 97 minutes.
Unintentionally Compelling: By all appearances, Woody Allen’s latest film looks like it’s trying really hard to be genuinely profound. In Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), the Allen stand-in character is reincarnated as a troubled philosopher, who strives towards finding some sort of spiritual fulfillment despite all evidence to the contrary that life is utterly without meaning. Phoenix is compelling as per usual, but in Allen’s script there is little room for the star performer to move and stretch. As a result, Phoenix’s character becomes constrained by a poorly-written script that is confounding in its obtuse verbosity. Allen might think himself a self-styled intellectual a la Nietzsche, Kant, or Sartre, but Phoenix betrays the screenwriter for the poor man’s thinker that he really is. Phoenix’s inherent charisma is the only compelling aspect of the entire film, and even then in an entirely unintentional way.
Slovenly Misogynistic: Perhaps worse than whatever failings underlie Pheonix’s unintentionally compelling appearance in Irrational Man is the way in which the film’s chief actresses are so sorely underutilized and manipulated in order to stroke the ego of the director by proxy of his featured protagonist. Stone, who only just recently turned heads at the Academy-level with her inspired display in last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman, is criminally belittled in her role as Phoenix’s infatuated pupil. Instead of calling upon Stone’s innate talents for empathy and intelligence, Allen has his current muse wantonly placate his ego. What’s worse, Parker Posey — who plays the more age-appropriate paramour to Phoenix’s middle-aged bachelor, and is the most interesting performer in the entire film — is given short shrift to Stone’s sycophantic, puppy-dog-affection for Phoenix throughout. In a better movie, Irrational Man would have been about Posey’s melancholic sad clown, trapped within a loveless marriage that provides meager emotional security, but little else. Instead, Allen waxes misogynistic not due to any ill will felt towards his supporting heroines, but rather a disinterest in those characters who are of a temperamental being that is other than his thoroughly male and intellectual impotence.
Life, Or Something Like It: In the opening sequence of Irrational Man, Phoenix is seen driving towards the college campus that will ultimately bring him to personal fruition. At moments like this, despite the inclusion of some heinously unforgivable voice-over narration, and even as Allen plays at the very same type of verbal masturbation that Phoenix early on self-referentially mocks, there still seems to be some reason beyond mere humor that is at the heart of Allen’s latest studio comedy. But alas, there is no real catharsis to be found in Irrational Man, Phoenix and Posey likewise interesting actors to watch for the sake of their being in the film at all, but overall Allen has turned in better scripts in the past, and this most certainly is not one of them. While Phoenix attempts to bring something more than is present to his character, Allen phones his entire script in, borrowing heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train mixed in with a little of his own half-baked philosophizing.
Overall: Irrational Man is an exceptionally trite exercise in over-indulgence on behalf of its director, but Phoenix and Posey are fascinating to watch, as always.