Woody Allen is back in the land of â€œCrimes & Misdemeanorsâ€ and â€œMatch Pointâ€ with â€œIrrational Man.â€ His latest film, a morality tale murder mystery, was shown this morning in Cannes for the press and tonight opens out of competition. I thought it was certainly on the level of â€œBlue Jasmine,â€ a real Woody winner that is disturbing and totally involving. I predict a massive ovation in the Palais des Festivals tonight.
The title â€œIrrational Manâ€ is a nod to William Barrett, an American legend who brought the existentialists (Sartre, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc) here in 1958 with a book of the same name. The movie also embraces Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who wrote about ethics and lying. Much is made of all of this in the film but you donâ€™t have to know more than Philosophy 101 to get this movie.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a washed up alcoholic womanizing philosophy profession who arrives at a liberal arts college in Newport, Rhode Island with more baggage than Kim Kardashian on a weekend holiday. Right away he gets involved with two women: Parker Posey is a married professor on campus who pursues him in an affair; Emma Stone is a student who falls for him before they even meet.
As Phoenixâ€™s Abe Lucas devolves (heâ€™s drunk, impotent and not much of what he was) he searches for a way to restart his life. He and Stoneâ€™s Jill overhear a conversation in a diner that makes the movie take a sharp left. â€œIrrational Manâ€ is not about a love triangle, but about Abeâ€™s overreach for redemption. He does something terrible, tries to rationalize it, and must live with consequences.
Woodyâ€™s screenplay is deceptive because itâ€™s much more sophisticated than it appears at first. Forget all this older man-younger woman stuff (Phoenix is hardly an old man). The movie is about Abe thinking heâ€™s avenging a wrong (we never learn if that happens) and in the course of this, committing the most egregious act. Is he a hero or a villain? Or just a self-absorbed slob who cannot navigate life?
The fact remains that Phoenix is exceptional, Stone does maybe her best work, and Parker Posey makes us wonder why sheâ€™s never been in a Woody Allen film before. The three of them anchor the film perfectly. There are several good supporting players, including Ethan Phillips and Betsy Aidem as Stoneâ€™s parents. Plus, Bette Midlerâ€™s real life daughter, Sophie von Haselberg, makes a sweet feature film debut as one of Stoneâ€™s student friends. Sheâ€™s got a million dollar cherubic smile.
â€œIrrational Manâ€ could teeter toward what we call the â€œsmallerâ€ Woody Allen films. But itâ€™s a movie of ideas that are framed in actual plotâ€“ very economically told. It falls into place much like â€œMatch Point,â€ effortlessly. And even though you know what Abe is going to doâ€“ and he does itâ€“ you still want to see what the outcome is. The ending, which you can guess once youâ€™re toward the end, but I wonâ€™t tell you hereâ€“ is sort of perfect for an existentialist.
Allen punctuates the film not with his usual New Orleans jazz or classic songbook, but Ramsey Lewisâ€™s jazz instrumental â€œThe In Crowdâ€ and other Lewis numbers that give the story an out of time feel. Cell flip phones are used occasionally but otherwise this movie could be taking place at any time before smartphones ruined our lives.