I don’t go into new Woody Allen movies expecting masterpieces ignored and ridiculed by a needlessly hostile body of critics. If that was the case, I’d be setting myself up for serious disappointment everytime Allen made a Whatever Works. No, I go into his movies expecting, for comedies, to laugh more than I don’t laugh and to enjoy myself, and, for dramas, to be intrigued by the film’s events and characters. Out of the many, many Allen films I’ve seen, only September and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion didn’t even slightly pass these tests, with the rest ranging from middle-of-the-road to some of the best films I’ve ever seen. I’ll say that, despite all my jokey talk about it being “the can’t-miss hit of the summer”, I was expecting Irrational Man to be closer to that first category, something I saw, didn’t hate, and left not thinking about it. But oh, I am happy to report that Irrational Man exceeded my expectations, and, while it’s hardly perfect or one of his best, it’s entirely unworthy of the critical pile-on it’s receiving (to say nothing of the million thinkpieces saying “This is Why You Shouldn’t Keep Watching Woody Allen Films” or equating my seeing them with enabling a heroin addict).
Joaquin Phoenix has created some indelible characters since his I’m Still Here stunt, and here, we have another. His name is Abe Lucas. When the movie starts, he has taken a job teaching philosophy at a Rhode Island college, during what he deems (in voiceover that sounds distinctly like him reading from prepare notes, a touch similar to the narration of Allen’s underrated Another Woman) the low-point of his life. He is sullen and reserved even in class, where he teaches the writings of Kant and Kierkegaard to, amongst others, Jill (a luminous Emma Stone). Jill is initially smitten with him, to the annoyance of her boyfriend, who isn’t a fan of her sharing morbid factoids about Abe’s life to him (after she compliments her boyfriend on his sweater, she launches into talking about the suicide of Abe’s mother). But Abe has his sights on Rita (an adorably daffy Parker Posey), a fellow professor, at first. He likes Jill, but wants to keep their relationship at the friend level. That is, until he and Jill go out to eat at a diner, where they overhear a woman’s sob story about a crooked custody judge giving custody of her children to her asshole of an ex-husband because he’s in cahoots with the husband’s lawyer. This leads Abe to think of a truly irrational action to perform; murdering the judge. This idea, of course, greatly improves his sex drive and puts a pep in his step like never before. To use other Phoenix characters, he starts the movie as sullen as Bruno from The Immigrant, decides suddenly to become Theodore Twombly, and ultimately is revealed to be a more intellectual variation on Freddie Quell (I guess you could also say that he’s a twisted version of Doc Sportello in his desire to do good by helping a family).
Before the idea of the perfect murder comes up, the film is, admittedly, sputtering a bit. Just as sex and writing doesn’t come easy to Abe, the philosophy and the comedy don’t come naturally to Allen like they once did. The first part of the film is a bit rough, just like the first part of Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream. That movie got a lot better as it went along and so does this one, but they share more in common than that. Whenever Allen makes a movie about murder, it’s inevitably compared to his other big movies on the subject; Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. But those movies showcase men driven to their limits, until murder seems to become the only viable option to them. In Dream, there’s no real reason the two brothers at the heart of the movie need to carry out the murder, and that goes double for Irrational Man. It’s just like Alan Alda sez; comedy is tragedy plus time. Dream played the idea of an unnecessary murder and the effect on its perpetrators for Greek tragedy. Irrational Man plays it for dark, dark laughs. This is the only movie you will see this year where you’ll be smiling from ear-to-ear because the main character is going to murder someone. The comedic tone is maintained by the actors, namely Phoenix. Phoenix has long displayed an astonishing control over his expressions, using minute differences in them to convey what the audience should know. Here, he uses that talent to great comedic effect, getting laughs just by the way he kind of smiles. But the script also does the work in keeping things light even when they’re very much not light. Allen has gotten (not undeserved) criticism for the sloppiness of some of his scripts as of late, but this one is his best since Blue Jasmine (which is admittedly not very impressive a feat, considering one movie separates them, but ah well). And there were several turns that I genuinely did not see coming at all, which is generally not something than can be said even for Allen’s thrillers.
Of course, you’re wondering what I think of it aesthetically. I’ve made it clear that Darius Khondji is my absolute favorite working cinematographer, having shot the two best-looking movies (that I’ve seen) from last year. He’s back working with Allen here, and if the results aren’t quite as sumptuous as the visuals of Magic in the Moonlight or Midnight in Paris were, no one’s counting (it’s hard to make Rhode Island look as good as France, anyway). Khondji and Allen love their warm hues, and we get plenty of warm colors and sunshine here, the trees and grass of the film’s university practically bursting off the screen in their beauty (Khondji also remains a master of lighting women’s faces for maximum beauty, which he uses to make Emma Stone and Parker Posey shine even more than they normally do). And a trip to an amusement park adds some more stunning visuals for Khondji’s highlight reel, especially a sequence set in a hall of distorted mirrors. This is Allen’s third straight film shot in 2.35:1, and while he, for the most part, uses the widescreen frame as he would on one of his 1.85:1 movies, there are a few moments that are wonderfully framed to take advantage of the format, especially a shot in the diner where one of the woman’s friends is talking in the left corner of the frame, the other friends and Emma Stone are listening in the middle, and Joaquin Phoenix listening is at the other end of the frame. As for the editing, it’s typically unobtrusive and good at cutting scenes off when they need to be, a far cry from just five years ago, when all of Allen’s films needed a good trim. The soundtrack is not made up of multiple standards, but just a few, primarily the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s version of “The ‘In’ Crowd”, which hangs over the film like a deceptively sunny day.
I hope that this pile of words encouraged you to check out Irrational Man, which I think will be looked at in years to come as one for the “that’s actually really good” pile, alongside fellow unfairly-maligned Allen films like Shadows and Fog, Interiors, and yes, Scoop (this is the hill I’m gonna die on, folks). It’s well worth your time, and far from the embarrassment everyone has already deemed it to be. But if you want my case in a shorter, more Allenesque form…