Sometimes a guy can't catch a break, and it may be for good reason. With Woody Allen and the critics of Irrational Man, one may think there's a rational reason, no clever spin intended. Here's a man who is spectacular at what he does, but he doesn't have the most immense range of the American iconoclast-auteurs - by this point, after writing films for 50 years and directing for over 45, critics and most audiences get the gist of what the man works with: some occasional fantasy, light-hearted comedy, serious, brooding drama, romance, mystery, magic, existentialism and the separation of reality and fantasy. But for myself, I went into this trying to take it just on its own terms: does it work as its own story, as to what it's trying to do, with or without the author's baggage? I think it does, often quite well, and it makes a sort of cap to an unexpected, thematic trilogy of movies, which I'll get to in a moment.
In Irrational Man it starts out like what seems to be a story of a philosophy professor (Phoenix) caught in despair, while an eager, bright student (Stone) starts to fancy him. He's blocked, he can't seem to write (or "sleep with" Parker Posey's character early on), and he drinks fairly heavily (Phoenix adds a pot belly to the mix). But its main turning point turns it into what is a Hitchcockian tale of murder and deception, all due to eavesdropping on the sad tale of a cruel judge presiding over a custody case. It turns this professor's life around, albeit with a rather dark twist.
By Hitchcockian it's easy to throw that label around, but this is a filmmaker who has previously used a scene from Shadow of a Doubt (I forget which movie, but I remember characters watching it in one of his films), and now has some elements taken from it. Hey, how about a discussion in a very lively, satirical manner about the best way to go about a murder? Or what if it's a complete stranger with a poison of some kind? At the same time Allen throws in Emma Stone, once again after 'Moonlight' but here now modern and always great to look at as a star on screen with full-on talent and energy to burn with her co-star. Phoenix, meanwhile, gets a lot of this man's despair, and then his odd joy too - though Phoenix may not seem like the most spot-on actor to show 'energy' in the later half of the film, he is still completely there for what this character requires.
What I liked about Irrational Man, even with some of its familiarity in the Allen world - professor with a younger student romantically, questions of morality, what it means when PURE luck really defines what happens for people - is that it was genuine about how its characters saw and changed with their views on the world, and that on its own you get wrapped up in the question of "Will he really get away with this?" To be sure, this question was asked with greater intellectual rigor in Crimes & Misdemeanors, and Match Point had an even tougher, bleaker view of what it means for people to get ahead in the world no matter who stands in heir way. But all three of these movies seem to make up a trilogy - maybe we can call it his 'Dostoyevsky' series - with this one being what I should think is the capper of them. Now it's not an older businessman or a young upstart, but someone who has spent his life trying to figure out what it means to live a meaningful life in theory vs practice.
It may be the literalness of this comparison that will throw off some viewers. That and/or the narration. I have to say that is the one thing I'm really unsure of after seeing it for the first time; on the one hand it works with the realm of film noir, as in here are characters who are constantly plotting or trying to think their way through some sort of emotional or moral logic (and the moment where the plot really kicks off, it seems hard for me to figure how it could be done without voice-over), but on the other there are moments where it is too much, that a moment could work without the character's direction. On the other hand again, it's an existential comedy that takes itself very seriously, or a semi-romantic and dramatic love story that has some light touches (and that ending!) Irrational Man isn't great, but it's very good, exceeding any expectations I could've had, in large part thanks to a cast and, by the way, some really skillful and beautiful direction on the whole (and the warm cinematography, all shot in Newport, Rhode Island). I'll be curious if this gets re-evaluated in 10-15 years.