“Irrational Man” opens with a shot of a car on the road, which is particularly fitting for a film that operates in two different gears. In its first half, the film crawls down the slow lane, sluggishly creating the world of the film before shifting into a comfortable, if not predictable, gear in its second half.
In Woody Allen’s latest feature, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is the titular irrational man at the center of the film’s universe. Abe is a recent addition to the philosophy department at a small East Coast college and is all that anyone can seem to talk about. Students and teachers alike buzz about the rumors and reputation he brings along with him. Some say he sleeps with his students. Others retell colorful stories of his past as an activist. Very soon, Abe begins to reveal more about himself, not only through his dialogue but also through first-person narration. He claims to be at an emotional low point in his life and reveals that nothing can make him happy.
Of anyone, Abe’s best student, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), is the most enamored of the man. After befriending him, she grows more and more fascinated with him, and her understanding of her professor becomes increasingly nuanced. Finally, late in the movie, after Jill has spent almost all of her screentime speaking about Abe, she proclaims she no longer wants to discuss him. Her boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley), rightly responds, “I never wanted to talk about him the the whole time.” At this moment, audiences will likely crack a smile because Roy sums it up perfectly: There is just too much time spent on Abe.
The first half of Allen’s latest movie suffers from a lack of events — a dearth of narrative momentum that leaves a lot of time for lengthy discussion about Abe. Throughout the film, the central characters candidly tell one another how they are feeling, or do so through the film’s first-person narration instead of revealing their thoughts or feelings through action. The lack of exposition, coupled with the fact that the characters are fairly one-dimensional, makes it difficult for the first half of the film to sustain audience interest.
Although it takes some time to do so, the film does pick up eventually. After plodding along through his teaching job in a depressed, drunken stupor and even starting an unsatisfying affair with a married science professor named Rita Richards (Parker Posey), Abe takes a dramatic turn in life. While at lunch, Jill and Abe overhear a conversation in the booth behind them. What Abe hears gives him the hope that he can make a tangible difference in the world that his teaching and activism have not been able to achieve. Suddenly, his life is changed.
Unfortunately, the new Abe continues to be rather flat. Instead of complaining from behind dark sunglasses how unhappy he is and drinking out of a flask at inappropriate moments, he is chipper and blabbers about how good life is. Fortunately, after the arrival of Abe’s new outlook, the real core of the plot begins to take hold, and the events that follow satisfyingly propel the audience to the end of the movie.
During the film’s second half, the plot takes a turn into a moral area already amply explored in Allen’s oeuvre: Abe decides to commit a murder. In response to overhearing that a corrupt judge is dead-set on ruining a woman’s life, Abe decides to take justice into his own hands. Although Allen is repeating something he has done many times before, in this film, he gives us a fresh look into the act of murder. The mood remains light and humorous as the characters simultaneously explore some of Allen’s favorite ideas about life and death.
While Abe, Jill and Rita all fail to have the complexity that the characters in other Allen films, such as “Blue Jasmine,” possess, the film is redeemed by moments of particularly engaging dialogue that — delivered expertly by Phoenix, Stone and Posey — make it worthwhile.
“Irrational Man” is not one of Allen’s best films, but Woody Allen is still Woody Allen: He certainly knows how to tell a good joke.