Who is Abe Lucas? In Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man, Abe is a lost soul. A burnt out philosophy professor and author in a deep funk. He arrives at his new position at fictional Brayer College in Rhode Island at the beginning of the film amid lots of gossip about his notorious philandering. He looks like he barely has the energy to dress himself between tugs on his flask, single malt Scotch is his drink of choice. He is seduced by a lonely female professor (Parker Posey) but is unable to perform in his deflated state. He strikes up a more fruitful friendship with one of his female students, Jill (Emma Stone), who’s writing and intellect he admires. She has a boyfriend who is immediately jealous of her interest in Abe but she reassures him she just admires his mind. Sure she does. Of course, she falls for his brooding, lost puppy dog eyes and near suicidal attitude. But then something happens. He finds a purpose for his life. He plans to murder someone.
Irrational Man shares many familiar elements from other Woody Allen Films and even similar dialogue. A little Crimes and Misdemeanors here, a little Match Point there with a touch of Deconstructing Harry on top. I found myself a little too aware of the sameness, the dialogue I’ve heard come out of his characters mouths in some of his other, better films. But this happens with other successful filmmakers as well. Each has their own style, their own way of words and their own way of telling a story. We know what we’re getting when we go see a Woody Allen movie. His stock characters are like his own modern day Commedia dell’arte (the struggling older man/teacher, the young, smart woman/student). Sometimes his tales hit the mark and break out as something new and wonderful such as Midnight In Paris or Blue Jasmine. Sometimes they fall flat (Cassandra’s Dream). This one lands somewhere in the middle. This has just enough nuances to the story and characters that his take on his usual topics of interest is new and offers a couple of nice surprises.
The performances of the three leads give the story a boost as well. Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t do his ‘Woody Allen’ impression. He plays Abe straight, warts and all and comes across as a fleshed out character and one you’re interested in following to his fateful conclusion. Emma Stone appears in her second ‘Woody’ following last year’s charming Magic In The Moonlight. She is always interesting to watch. She almost doesn’t have enough to do here but be the fawning student who soon realizes she’s in over her head in this relationship with her teacher but Stone is a talented actor and does her best with the character. It was nice to see Parker Posey again! She’s been spending most of her recent career on television but she has such a quirky presence and easy style that you wonder why there aren’t more parts for her in film. A quick look on IMDB and you’ll see she’s working on Allen’s next film as well.
The second half of the film turns dark but still with a light touch. The jazzy Ramsey Lewis song The In Crowd from the 60s plays throughout the film in place of Allen’s usual 20s or 30s jazz score. It’s the sort of touch that underscores the feel of the movie. Some things borrowed, some things new but all of it courtesy of the creative mind of Woody Allen. The best thing is there’ll be a new ‘Woody’ next year! And there’s a very good chance that it might be wonderful.