Few directors accumulate as much buzz as Woody Allen. His quick wit and irony have captivated us for years, resulting in movie after movie deserving cult status. His films are home to characters that capture our hearts and minds, allowing us to truly identify with personalities that aren’t glossed over by a Hollywood filter. Indeed, Annie Hall’s elusive and charming persona resonates just as true today as it did when first revealed to the world.
In Allen’s latest movie, The Irrational Man, we see actors Joaquín Phoenix and Emma Stone take centre stage in this humorous quasi-thriller. Phoenix plays a philosophy teacher, Abe Lucas, who is wholly consumed by his inertia and apathy; Stone is the swooning, beguiled student. However, as is the norm with Allen, most of his portrayed darkness is graced with levity.
The film is set in a small, picturesque New England college town that oozes pep and is filled with precocious, East Coast students. Disillusioned Lucas arrives at the school at a particular low point in his life, as he questions his place and role in the world– the stereotypical existential crisis befit for a philosophy professor past his glory days.
Image Source: Protothema
Lucas enters the college with his reputation already preceding his actions: tales of his passionate, fiery affairs and voyages overseas. In fact, a few mere hours after his arrival, Lucas is propositioned by chemistry teacher Rita, after she blatantly expresses her dissatisfaction with her marriage to fellow professor Paul. Lucas is the quintessential man of mystery, directly injecting some suspense and romance into this preppy microcosm. He is the classic Allen protagonist, stewing in self loathing and disgust, comprised of equal parts attraction and repulsion.
Stone, who was spotlighted in Allen’s poorly-received, last film Magic in the Moonlight, is thankfully appreciated in The Irrational Man. Her talents are not wasted, as she perfectly fits the archetype of an intelligent, self-assured, waspy humanities major. Jill has an instant attraction towards Lucas, perhaps as he is the pure antithesis of her perfect on paper boyfriend Roy (who is certainly sweet, though bordering on suffocating).
Image Source: Indiewire
For a while, Abe and Jill have a purely platonic relationship, yet the obvious development of their feelings is evident in the meandering walks they take along the coast, frequent visits to coffee shops and candid philophizing. Very quickly, Jill showcases that she is not a mere adoring student, but a steady intellectual equal, thereby making their dynamic much more interesting and dangerous, ultimately resulting in an enveloping love affair.
For Abe, the turning point in his life occurs when they overhear a woman telling her tales of woe and despair at a diner. Facing the loss of her two children in a brutal custody battle, she blames the judge for her tortured outcome. Abe regards this chance eavesdropping as an illuminating opportunity, and consequently views himself as a lone agent, with a new purpose to improve someone else’s life (and subsequently improve his own).
Image Source: Chicagoreader
Bizarrely, his rational begins to somewhat make sense, and the rejuvenating effects are on immediate display (mainly in terms of his sexual prowess). After stealing the chemistry lab key from Rita, he surreptitiously sneaks in, takes some cyanide, stalks the judge for a week and plants the poison in the judge’s orange juice after his weekly Saturday run. The judge dies, and talk of murder spreads like wildfire across the quaint New England town.
Despite the risk of exposure, Abe is filled with endorphins when talking about the murder, even going so far as to give his theories about what happened during dinner parities. When watching his reactions, we feel as if we are in a pinball machine, flying and jumping from one corner to another in a matter of seconds. We feel the snap of morals breaking as swiftly as elastic bands. When Jill deduces the truth, she gives Abe an ultimatum, leading to an untimely death.
This is the worst case scenario of a mentor-student relationship gone awry, with a cold-blooded central plot inviting comparisons to Crime & Punishment. The film is plagued and inundated with philosophical questions: mortality, chance and the meaning of existence all situated within the prism of academia. Though not as strong as some of Allen’s previous films, The Irrational Man keeps us on our toes and provides us with the tools to question and examine our own morality.