The despair-inducing Irrational Man has some promise to it—things could have been done to make it merely tepid instead of abject, but is Woody Allen capable of doing those things anymore? This crabbed rewrite of Crime and Punishment, with its gimmicky One Step Beyond ending, is the backhanded celebration of a sour man. Abe (a sleepy, ruminative Joaquin Phoenix) is a supposed luminary in the world of philosophy, come to teach at a small Rhode Island college. Phoenix settles deep within himself, his stomach apparently given an artificial pot by a pregnancy pouch. He’s said to be brilliant, not that he says anything that proves it (he tells his students about “Jean Paul Sartre’s wonderful comment that ‘Hell is other people'”). He’s seen much of the world and demonstrates his melancholia by swigging from a flask in public, and playing Russian roulette at parties.
He entices a pair of women who probably should know better: the married Rita (Parker Posey) and Jill, a student (Emma Stone), who between this and Aloha is having a cruel year. Abe is turned to plotting murder in an instant by something that he overhears in a coffee shop. This is awkward enough, but the info-dumps from the other characters are just as strange. Abe: “I was an elevator operator, but I always read Dostoyevsky.” Clumsiness abounds in the bald way the women in this movie talk to Abe—they don’t converse with him, they stage interviews with him.
Posey, more alluring now than she was as a girl, has a scene, in which she shows up on Abe’s porch with two bottles of single-malt during a heavy rain storm. Why can’t Allen recognize this moment as the really good thing it would be to someone who was a serious existentialist? The answer is that he’s too abstemious to understand the boozing man’s life. And when Posey offers Abe “grass”—i.e. marijuana—it’s one small example of how out of it this once pace-setting director is today.
There are many other sad examples of Allen’s disconnection—in the dated chatter of the students or the blindness of the faculty to Abe’s problems. A funhouse-mirror sequence isn’t bad. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s Rhode Island landscapes are fresh. But this film, killed by hasty writing, smells like a contractual obligation.
R; 97 Mins.