A thriller clumsily disguised as a comedy at its core, Woody Allen’s Irrational Man stars Emma Stone as Jill, a philosophy student infatuated with her suicidal professor, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix). Against everyone else’s advice, and Abe’s protestations, their romance flourishes, and soon Jill, like nearly every Allen protagonist, is spending her days in a never-ending string of hashings-out with friends and family. Her simpering naïveté is either a scabrous comment on the film’s decidedly square New England milieu, or one of far too many facile decisions within Allen’s screenplay. The two characters deliver allusions to Capital-I important themes in deadeningly obvious swaths of alternating voiceover, but it’s never identified to whom either is speaking. Early in their dalliance, with Abe taking countless overlong pulls from a hip flask, slurring his words in Phoenix’s worst “drunk” performance this side of Gladiator, Jill offers a reminiscence: “There was no way I could realize from that conversation that a lot was wrong with Abe.” It will strike even the film’s drowsiest viewers as a too-easy laugh.
Abe and Jill eavesdrop on a woman in a restaurant, lamenting that a corrupt circuit judge will likely rule to separate her from her kids, and Abe begins obsessively planning the judge’s murder—the perfect crime, made all the sweeter for the fact that the two men are total strangers. Arguably, Allen’s screenplay diagnoses Abe’s plot as the logical terminus for his particular strain of failed Bush-era progressivism: His career is described—by Jill, to anyone who’ll listen—as that of the globetrotting activist/journalist/do-gooder, in the mold of a Bernard-Henri Lévy or a Sean Penn. His voiceover screeds against the judge belabor the value of direct action (actually vigilantism), growing into frantically self-reassuring manifestos as he gets closer and closer to pulling the trigger. Allen and Phoenix’s collaboration on Irrational Man’s antihero is the closest the film gets to a saving grace: After having taken elaborate pains in its first act to show Abe as utterly impotent, the murder plot turns him manic in the other direction, bounding around campus with a renewed lease on life. It’s to Phoenix’s credit that both sides register believably; Abe is no mere stand-in for a role Allen would have played in his younger years (like Owen Wilson’s in Midnight in Paris).
Irrational Man’s screenplay is dotted with questions of death and morality, but these shout-outs are pretty isolated—as are the belly laughs and one-liners, including a bit of bar-setting in the opening minutes that’s vintage Allen, with Abe telling his students that “much of philosophy is verbal masturbation.” The question of how seriously the film takes its own existential conundrum goes rivetingly unresolved until its penultimate scene, but the coup de grace for Abe’s murder craving is less a triumph of ingenuity than of average cat-and-mouse plot maneuvering. Which brings it back around to Jill: Stone’s sincerity lands effortlessly, but the character is a bad deal for a wildly overqualified actress. (Same goes for Parker Posey, nevertheless whooping it up as a disaffected colleague, pathetically flinging herself at Abe from the moment she first appears on screen.) After Abe and Jill have seated for dinner, she tells him she loves that he orders for her, and it’s not hard to surmise this is one (eccentric, to say the least) man’s idea of what every man wants to hear. Allen may be proposing self-rationalization as a middle-class privilege, but straight white men—desperate, narcissistic, “irrational” though they may be—are still first at the buffet.