Not all Woody Allen movies are brilliant, but all have merit in some shape or form. The dark comedy, “Irrational Man,” a superficial version of much finer Allen films (e.g., “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point”), had enough of a pull to hold my interest despite its uneven writing, plot and pace. Great music by the Ramsey Lewis Trio, a charming Rhode Island college setting and effective cinematography by Darius Khondji helped the film move along. And then, the existential theme underlying the story reveals as much about Allen as it does about his characters.
Joaquin Phoenix (“Walk the Line,” “Her”), who early in his career as a child actor appeared in ABC’s “Afterschool Specials,” excellently performs the complex role of Abe Lucas, a jaded, joyless philosophy professor spending the summer teaching at a small attractive college near the ocean. We see Abe slouching around the leafy campus, belly hanging out, unthinkingly drinking single malt Scotch from a flask, as other professors and students gossip about him.
Abe quickly forms attachments with two very different women. Rita (wonderful Parker Posey, “And Now a Word from Our Sponsor,” TV’s “Portlandia”) is an unhappily married professor, with whom Abe has an affair. But his depression has traveled from his brain to his body, and Abe is unable to deliver on his promise of sexual pleasure.
There’s Jill (Emma Stone, “Magic in the Moonlight”), one of Abe’s best students, with whom he forms a close platonic friendship. Jill is attracted to Abe’s intellect and his tortured soul. She would like to have a sexual relationship with him, but he enjoys the friendship “for now.” Jill’s boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley, “If I Stay”), is extremely understanding, although admittedly jealous.
Despite her mother’s warning, Jill tries to help Abe escape his mental morass. In talking about Jill, Emma Stone said: “The idea that she can rescue somebody who’s in such an alcoholic, downward, suicidal spiral is selfishly rewarding for her. She’s never had the experience of helping someone out of a dark place—and she doesn’t realize that can lead you into the darkness too.”
One day Jill and Abe are at a diner when they overhear the conversation at the next booth. A tearful mother is about to lose custody of her children to her crummy ex-husband solely because of his lawyer’s friendship with the judge. The accidental eavesdropping changes Abe’s life.
Allen has stated, “I’m a great believer in the utter meaningless randomness of existence. I was preaching that in ‘Match Point’ and Abe preaches it in his class. All of existence is just a thing with no rhyme or reason to it. We all live subject to the utter fragile contingency of life. You know, all it takes is a wrong turn on the street …”
Yes, life can be twisted, even governed, by random acts, but we still have free will. So Abe, like Woody Allen himself, makes choices in his life. And existentialism is a philosophy, not an excuse for uncivilized behavior. Many women no longer see Woody Allen films because of his personal life and his films’ preoccupation with younger women adoring older men. But for me, his personal life is separate from his superb oeuvre, as I separate Picasso’s fabulous art from his shoddy treatment of women. Allen’s films and Picasso’s art are the best parts of themselves, and can be appreciated independently from their lives. Or perhaps, I’m like Jill in “Irrational Man,” attracted to Allen’s intellect and angst-ridden soul.