Judge Thomas Spangler – the catalyst at the centre of Woody Allen’s latest dark-comedy, Irrational Man – is a creature of habit. Every day he jogs along the same route, drinks the same juice and stops to read the paper on the same park bench. His routine is, in fact, so constant and predictable that it actively plays a part in his own demise.
Allen, too, follows a predictable routine. He exercises in the mornings, writes at the same desk all day, and watches baseball at the weekends. He once famously missed an Academy Awards ceremony because it clashed with his weekly jazz band performance. In short, the filmmaker knows what works for him, and sticks with it. Arguably, though, this reliance on routine has started to creep into his films. Familiar plot-lines, character types and themes pop up so often that it’s not difficult to predict the content of his newest work: a depressed intellectual type (check); a twenty-something love interest (check); infidelity, death and cynicism (check). Irrational Man certainly retreads some old ground, to say the least.
Tonally speaking, Allen’s latest aims for the middle of the road but ends up veering wildly. It’s not quite a serious, reflective tragedy (e.g. Crimes & Misdemeanours), nor is it a witty, neurotic farce (e.g. Love & Death), but there are flimsy attempts at both styles. The drama lacks weight and the comedy lacks jokes. It’s by no means a bad effort, but one can’t help draw comparisons to the director’s earlier work. In many ways, Irrational Man appears to borrow heavily from Allen’s trilogy of British-noir films: the brooding tension of Match Point; the lighthearted curiosity of Scoop; the murdered stranger of Cassandra’s Dream – it’s all repeated here.
Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a drunken misanthrope, moves to a coastal town (an idyllic Newport, Rhode Island) to teach a university course in philosophy. The professor is out-of-shape, despondent and at times sociopathic, but Phoenix lends him an air of pity and impotence. When rumours of his tortured past spread around the campus, Abe becomes an unwilling, enigmatic subject of gossip.
Abe’s offbeat teaching methods soon catch the eye of student Jill (Emma Stone), and the two strike up a close friendship. Of course, this being a Woody Allen film, it’s not surprising that Jill develops feelings for Abe, despite having a loving boyfriend. Stone’s performance is downplayed and vulnerable. We not only feel her frustration as she berates Abe for his increasingly reckless behaviour, but also the conflicted pain of having him reject her romantic advances. Bafflingly, much of the protagonists’ feelings and motives are communicated through voiceover narration – the device helps some of the more sluggish plot points along, but for the most part, it’s lazy and pointless.
With existentialism, morality and post-war atheism among his topics, Abe’s teachings serve as an brief introduction to the novelists and philosophers that have influenced Allen’s writing over the years – namely Sartre, Dostoyevsky and Kant. One of Abe’s talking points, crucial to the central theme of the film, questions whether murder of one person is justified, if it meant saving the lives of others. It’s Utilitarianism 101. Nothing but “verbal masturbation”, surely.
This brings us back to Spangler – a man of routine, but also a notoriously cruel judge with a lot of enemies. At a diner, Abe and Jill overhear a woman whose very life will be undoubtedly ruined by the actions of Spangler. The judge is apparently so nasty that several characters openly joke about him dying; essentially he’s another faceless, evil man from one of Abe’s case studies. His death would make the world a better place, and Abe finds meaning in fulfilling this fantasy.
But of course, good and evil aren’t a binary; reality is full of unseen consequences. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how Abe justifies his own moral universe. Allen’s writes this part particularly well, but it’s dragged down by a lethargic comic timing and a handful of scenes that merely repeat the same conversation. The film unfolds as one might expect, but suffers from some convoluted plot-points that undermine the more serious aspects of the story. Irrational Man offers plenty of subtext already present in Allen’s earlier work, but lacks the nourishment of, say, Crimes & Misdemeanours or Match Point. It’s far from his worst, but it’s nothing we haven’t already seen before. Colm Laverty