Film Review: Irrational Man is problematic

irrational man

The newest offering from writer/director Woody Allen, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey and Emma Stone tells the story of the brilliant-yet-tormented philosophy professor in the midst of an existential crisis.

When Abe (Phoenix) arrives at Braylin College, he does so as a pot-bellied alcoholic who gives zero shits about anything because, as far as he’s concerned, his life is meaningless. His reputation as a charismatic lady-lover is, these days, unfounded as he is unable to raise his flagpole. Despite this, he half-heartedly embarks on an affair with a lonely professor (Posey) but still can’t find comfort in anything other than sipping from his hip-flask. That is until he overhears a stranger’s tale of woe at a local diner and sees an opportunity to perform what he believes is a moral act. Suddenly, his purpose in life is back and so is his libido.

It doesn’t take long for him to get it on with his young friend Jill Pollard (Stone), a bright student who had long-since found his tortured nature a massive turn-on. But when Jill finds out the reasons behind Abe’s new-found joie de vivre, things come to a head…

The problem with Irrational Man is that it’s hard to genuinely like any of the characters and therefore care enough about their plight. Stone, usually a joy to watch, is presumably intended to be a sympathetic character, yet her determination to cheat on her (lovely, if bland) boyfriend is kinda unpleasant. Can’t she just break up with him before trying to bed her teacher? The same can be said of Parker Posey’s ‘frustrated wife’ character who is desperate for an affair. The gender politics here are questionable. Are we to really believe that women would simply throw themselves at the feet of Abe, who is supposed to be enigmatic but comes across as almost unspeakably dull.

Also, the oh-so-posh world in which they live is hard to relate to. “Shall we move to London next year and study at Oxford?” is not a sentence that many of us have said while strolling through our picturesque American university. Generally, the philosophy-heavy dialogue, while typically witty, doesn’t feel like the words of real humans.

Despite these problems, it’s to the film’s credit that it is still an interesting story and that, when the denouement arrives, it is really satisfying. There are a few funny moments peppered throughout and the whole thing rattles along at a nice pace. At 94 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, regardless of how much we like/relate to the characters.

If Blue Jasmine was a return to form for Allen, then this is a return to where he was before his return to form. It’s distracting enough for an hour-and-a-half and has some humorous and thought-provoking moments, but it is as forgettable as it is problematic.

Irrational man is out on 20 August.

bobby townsend


Review by Bobby Townsend.