2 out of 5 stars
Professor Abe Lucas' dad died when he was 12. His mother killed herself by drinking bleach. His best friend died in Iraq. His wife left him for a friend. And he gets drunk every afternoon.
In the wonderful world of Woody Allen, this means that Abe is a college philosophy teacher, specializing in "verbal masturbation" while pondering the meaning of existence and engaging in inappropriate relationships with women half his age. (And those are the things I liked about Allen's latest dramedy, Irrational Man.) Yes, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a poster child for academic burnout. Though he's landed a promising new job at a small college in Rhode Island, he can no longer find joy in teaching, or in life.
"I couldn't remember the reason for living," he complains. "And when I did, it wasn't convincing."
Despite his disengagement, students seem drawn to him, perhaps because of his painful honesty and ability to translate philosophical concepts into real-life situations, a gift shared by the film's director. Indeed, just like Allen, Abe seems to come alive after meeting a much younger woman – this time in the form of one of his brightest students, Jill (Emma Stone).
Yet even after becoming close to both Jill and a fellow teacher (Parker Posey), Abe still has "no zest for life, no joy." Fittingly, it's not until a potentially traumatic moral dilemma presents itself that Abe finally finds a purpose – something that will allow him to make a difference in people's lives, something to challenge his sense of right and wrong.
The plot, for better or worse, is pure Allen. As he often does (most recently in Magic in the Moonlight), he presents to us a reasonable, rational world, only to later embrace emotion. "Go with your gut feeling. Do rather than observe," Abe says. "If it feels right, it often is."
Allen seems to have followed his protagonist's advice, as Irrational Man must have felt right to him, at least on paper. Unfortunately, the end product is clunky, contrived and embarrassingly overwritten – a philosophical exercise rather than an engaging motion picture. The explanatory narration by Abe and Jill is endless and mostly unnecessary, eventually turning tedious. Even the music is annoying, thanks to the nightmarish repetitions of a jazzy piano rendition of Billy Page's "The In Crowd."
Stone is her usual charming self, but Phoenix phones it in. Posey is admittedly a nice addition, but her character comes apart slightly toward the end of the film, when she inexplicably turns chummy with Jill (her rival for Abe's attention). Add in an ending that almost completely destroys Allen's heretofore subtle examination of situational ethics, and we're left with one of the director's worst films and a title character that is more irrelevant than irrational.
Let's hope that Allen, 79, can produce one more masterpiece. Until then, skip his latest flick and instead reacquaint yourself with Annie Hall, or Bullets over Broadway, or Zelig. Now there's an irrational man you could learn to love.