Steve Martin, who studied philosophy at California State University once joked, “If you’re studying Geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but Philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.”
Such is the case with Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) the eponymous “Irrational Man” of Woody Allen’s fiftieth movie. A university professor about to start a new job at a new university, he’s brilliant but has fallen into the kind of existential funk that can only come from a lifetime spent studying philosophy. He’s the kind of guy who uses “As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out…” as a conversation starter and drinks single malt scotch from a flask in public.
He’s lost his zest for life, but not his appeal to women. Within days of the beginning of the semester he’s sleeping with the age appropriate but married Rita (Parker Posey) and is fighting off the advances of a student, Jill (Emma Stone). “He’s a sufferer,” she says with stars in her eyes, “and very conservative in a liberal sort of way.”
When he and Jill overhear a conversation regarding a crooked judge, suddenly his life has meaning. He decides to “make the world a better place” by getting rid of the judge. Planning the perfect murder, a crime he feels will benefit humanity, brings zest back into his life and puts a spring in his step.
From here “Irrational Man” becomes part character study and part romance and while it’s not exactly a whodunnit—more of a whydunnit—there is a procedural element to the last quarter of the film.
Subject wise Allen is in his element here, giving a raft of characters a chance to talk philosophy and the meaning of life but while the story should have forward momentum the farce ever escalates. Instead Allen relies too heavily on narration slowing down the action to a crawl.
Despite appealing performances from all, the story feels like a talky celebration of Abe’s dysfunction—the poor tortured genius—than a true study of a person pushed to extremes in search of happiness. Allen makes a movie a year, and while he often hits pay dirt there are years when it feels like he should have taken some time off, maybe vacationed in the South of France and recharged. This is one of those years.
Early on in “Irrational Man” Abe says, “Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation.” I said the same thing about the movie as the closing credits rolled.