Film Review: Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” — Some Existential Pleasures

This Rhode Island-shot Woody Allen film has its pleasures: interesting actors, philosophical chitchat, an appealing academic setting.

Irrational Man, directed by Woody Allen. At Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and AMC Loews Boston Common and other cinemas around New England.

Emma Stone and  in "Irrational Man."

Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man.”

By Gerald Peary

Go with low expectations and it’s not bad,” a friend at the gym alerted me yesterday, before I saw the new Woody Allen movie, Irrational Man. My pal was correct: despite the miserable reviews, the word on the street that Allen’s 45th film is a woeful retread of far better earlier works, Irrational Man proves worth seeing.

This Rhode Island-shot film has its pleasures: interesting actors, philosophical chitchat, an appealing academic setting. And any movie which shows off Newport’s historic movie palace, the Jane Pickens Theater, for product placement is A-OK with me.

It’s time for summer school at mythical Braylin College (actually Newport’s Salve Regina University), and the sleepy campus is all astir because of a daring hiring for the philosophy faculty: Abe Lucas (an effectively dissolute Joaquin Phoenix), a Man with a Past, though nobody agrees on what that is. Did his wife run away with his best friend? Was his best friend killed by stepping on a bomb in Iraq? Has he slept his way through a seedy life, bedding down coeds? Is he a hopeless alcoholic?

Norman Mailer had a strategy, which was to surprise those fearful of his anarchic, hell-raiser reputation by being charming and cooperative. Lucas has no such calculated cover. He arrives on campus and meets with the university president (Boston actor, Paula Plum, in a cameo) looking stunned and stoned. And he’s soon walking about in public chugging scotch from a flask. He attends a student party, stands sullen and apart, until the moment he freaks out everybody by grabbing a loaded gun and partaking of Russian roulette. Not once but twice! He’s a pill and a depressive, tired of life and distressed by his choice of profession, declaring that “Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation.”

Yet that are moments in the classroom when he gets into Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sartre, de Beauvoir. And all his existential pessimism and gloom have an effect on attractive women. They want to sleep with him, save him. He’s taken home by Rita Richards (Parker Posey), a professor in an unhappy marriage who wants Abe to run away with her. His smartest, most attractive student, Jill Pollard (winsome, bright-eyed Emma Stone), chases him. As they spend hours together with him telling her his sad tale of alienation and disillusionment, she practically begs him to have sex with her. Jill doesn’t know that he’s tried with Rita but proved hopelessly impotent.

So how can we bring a touch of happiness to Abe Lucas’s comatose life? A little homicide, perhaps?

It’s a big stretch in the movie, and pretty lazy screenwriting by Allen, that Abe and Jill just happen to be sitting in a diner so that they conveniently overhear a conversation which sets up the last act of Irrational Man. They are privy to a woman’s distressed story of being ripped off in domestic court by a corrupt. deceitful judge. Lucas suddenly has an existential purpose, his reading (a deluded misreading?) of Sartre’s call to act, to do. He will kill that bad judge and make the world a slightly better place. And with that act, he’ll be able to make love, and to love. And, like the character in Allen’s masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors, he’ll get away with murder.

Am I the only critic who has noticed that Irrational Man becomes, in its concluding section, an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt? That the soulful relationship of the diseased Abe and the worshipful Jill mirrors the psychic link between the two Charlies, Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright in the Hitchcock classic? Allen surely has Shadow of a Doubt in mind when he sets up a dinner scene in which Jill’s father gets excited about his murder theories, much like Charlie’s dad (Henry Travers) in Hitchcock. As for Allen’s ending for The Irrational Man: you know it already if you recall the two Charlies saying a final goodby on a train.

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess


  1. Harvey Blume on August 7, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    The Coen brothers A Serious Man was, to my mind, a work of genius. Why? There was the real — not the schlock — Yiddish, plus the fact that I didn’t understand it completely. If *I* can’t but understand it completely and yet am completely and thoroughly entertained, it must be genius.

    Irrational Man, well, I hope to see it, since Woody Allen, in his prime, made some of our greatest films.

    But I am bothered that, as I’ve read, one of the characters, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, quotes Heidegger.

    Woody Allen used to all the time allude to or riff off the seriousness of Ingmar Bergman.

    That was part of Allen’s charm, his high-low thing.

    But Heidegger is not Ingmar Bergman.

    He was a world-class philosophical anti-Semite.

    It bugs me in advance that Woody Allen can’t distinguish between Ingmar Bergman, as in High culture, which he was brilliant to mock and make use of, and Heidegger, as in philosophical justification for genocide.

    This already says to me maybe Woody’s stuck back somewhere.

    Still, it might be fun to see Phoenix quoting Heidegger.

    Or maybe not.

    • Irene Gravina on August 13, 2015 at 2:08 pm

      I saw it and there are some subtle jokes where the characters say things that do not put them in an especially briliiant light. He could have been trying to show the guy is a loser academically, because he certainly is otherwise. Even evil. It’s really Crime & Punishment taken in a different direction.

  2. Irene Gravina on August 13, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    This film is also playing at The Lexington Venue! 781-861-6161. 1794 Mass. Ave. in Lexington Center.

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