Irrational Man

What is there left to say about Woody Allen, the 79-year-old writer/director of 45 feature films, a dozen of them masterpieces? Better yet, what does Woody Allen have left to say? Averaging a little more than a movie a year since his inauspicious debut in 1966 (What’s Up, Tiger Lily), Allen has also contributed to the stage, the written word, and television. For some people, this prolific output is dilution, and they are not entirely wrong. Watching Magic in the Moonlight or To Rome With Love is to watch Allen spin his wheels, hoping for traction. They claim that Allen is all out of gas and reduce his movies to checklists and BINGO games.

But it’s a hollow argument, pointing only to Allen’s shortcomings, not his successes. Allen, much like John Ford and Yasujirô Ozu, knows exactly what he wants to say, and making movies is how he refines his argument. Time and time again, Allen tosses post-war existentialism, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Hitchcock, sex, morality, magic, and jazz into his cocktail shaker to see what comes out. Sometimes it’s a mediocre blend that does the trick but leaves much to be desired. Sometimes it’s a singular vision from one of America’s greatest filmmakers. Irrational Man is the latter.

Joaquin Phoenix plays the movie’s titular character, Abe, a philosophy professor who lost his best friend to the war in Iraq, his wife to another friend, his sexual drive to his despair, and his good nature to the bottle.

Emma Stone plays Jill, a young, bright philosophy student who becomes immediately attracted to Abe, much to her boyfriend’s chagrin. But Abe’s impotence causes him to hold her at arm’s length, which further fans the flames of desire in Jill. As it does with Rita (Parker Posey), Abe’s unhappily married colleague, who thinks she can cure her unhappiness and Abe’s blockage with single-malt scotch and a wild evening under the covers.

But Abe’s impotency isn’t physical or mental; it’s spiritual. With no convincing reason to live, Abe merely exists. He drinks constantly, casually tries to kill himself, and refuses to engage with the world before him or the material coming from him. Then a chance encounter changes Abe—body and soul. Confronted with another’s despair, Abe finds his calling, identifies a purpose, and learns to live again. He consummates his two relationships, becomes a brighter, happier man and devotes himself to action.

Abe’s revelation comes early in the movie, but divulging it would spoil the fun. And Irrational Man is a lot of fun. After 45 films, Allen has learned how to keep a movie humorous and breezy in spite of its darker subject matter, and Irrational Man visits some very dark places. Yet, with each turn of the screw, Allen takes complex philosophical arguments and streamlines them with precision.

For those acquainted with Allen’s oeuvre, Irrational Man will seem familiar, but make no mistake: this is a top-shelf offering from a master filmmaker. For newcomers, Irrational Man is a perfect entry into the world of Woody Allen, a director, even at the age of 79, who has plenty left to say.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Irrational Man (2015)
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Jamie Blackley, Parker Posey
Sony Pictures Classics, Rated R, Running time 95 minutes, Premiered May 15, 2015 at the Cannes Film Festival

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 1, “The sickness unto death.”