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Movie Review of the Week: “Irrational Man”

Movie Review of the Week: “Irrational Man”
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By Alison Bailes

How does one judge the latest work from a cinematic genius? In relation to past masterpieces? In relation to work by other filmmakers? Or in some kind of impossible vacuum? When someone as talented as Woody Allen has set his own bar so high, it is not a simple task to turn a blind eye to brilliance such as “Manhattan”, “Annie Hall” or “Midnight in Paris”. But neither is it fair to drag those titles up in comparison to his newest comic caper. But having established that it’s not fair, I will go on to say that “Irrational Man” does not reach the intellectual, emotional, comedic heights of those aforementioned films. But it’s pretty excellent just the same.

A well-cast Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, the doughy, rumpled professor of philosophy who arrives at the fictional east coast Braylin College amidst a cacophony of rumors about his boozy, philandering ways. Appearing half-drunk most of the time, he loves to shock his spellbound students; “Philosophy is verbal masturbation”, he declares, as he preaches Kant and Heidegger. Phoenix, well within his wheelhouse of slovenly but reflective characters, does Allen but without the annoying tics that have tripped up so many past Allen stand-ins.

Two women are taken with Abe’s jaded cynicism: his young, sunny student Jill (Emma Stone, returning after “Magic in the Moonlight”) who sees him as a project fit for molding, and Rita (Parker Posey), a fellow professor drawn to his bad-boy image. Posey, making her Allen debut, is so wonderfully daffy that it’s a wonder she hasn’t been in all his films. Her Rita provides comic relief, but is never anything less than believable as a lonely, middle-aged wife desperate for a way out. Stone is the perfect wide-eyed foil for the depressive Abe.

Voice-over at the start of the film announces a noir ambience as Abe ponders the randomness of life, despair and suicide. Yes, we are in familiar Allen territory, and the film seems to be regurgitating themes from his other work. But slowly a Nietzschian premise emerges; can Abe return some moral order to the world by doing away with a corrupt judge who is tormenting an innocent woman?  A hypothetical challenge soon becomes a real one to Abe, who constructs what is in his mind, the perfect murder.

Murder has often been on Allen’s mind (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”, “Match Point”) and he continues to find complexity in its contemplation.  However, humor is never far away and the film’s ending is an absurdist tour de force. Allen delights in reminding us that the endeavor to impose a meaning to life is of course meaningless, or that perhaps the whole struggle for existential import is just a cruel trick of fate.

Life may or may not be meaningless. But at least we have Woody Allen in it along with Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education”, Groucho Marx and Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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