Film

Joaquin Phoenix Aces Role in Woody Allen's 'Irrational Man'

Mark Olsen
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Irrational Man will likely change no one’s mind about what to do with Woody Allen.

Woody Allen, apparently, has something to confide. Year after year, movie after movie, he comes back to a select few themes and ideas over and over again. His latest film, Irrational Man, returns to a question he has circled in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream -- namely, what can you get away with and still go on living with yourself? Is there any act so unspeakable that it forever changes a person?

The new movie remains tonally elusive, changing at times scene by scene or even moment by moment between playful comedy and something more downcast and ruminative. Allen’s new Man isn’t so much irrational as stubbornly, willfully weird.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a self-styled bad-boy philosophy professor who has arrived at a small campus to teach for a summer. Abe, depressed and usually drunk, still manages to become an immediate big man on campus, capturing the attention of Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), an impressionable young student, and Rita Richards (Parker Posey), a science professor feeling trapped in her job and marriage. Their affections seem lost on Abe, adrift in his own malaise, and it is only once he turns to something more sinister that he is able to revive himself.

The film plays out as a light satire of campus manners airlessly trapped within a bell jar of dour seriousness -- what Allen in Annie Hall once called heaviosity. The film is peppered with references to various greatest hits of the liberal arts canon, Kant and Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and De Beauvoir, elevating the cloistered, hermetic atmosphere. The dark mood threatens to become a parody of itself until Allen punctures his own pretenses with a laugh line like, "Just what the world needs, another book about Heidegger and fascism."

As Allen moves relentlessly, restlessly from movie to movie, he creates each one in self-imposed secrecy, so as a film such as Irrational Man is first unveiled, audiences usually have no real idea of whether it is a lightweight, purposefully inessential comedy such as last year’s Magic in the Moonlight or something of a more piercing nature like the previous year’s Blue Jasmine.

This time Allen, who turns 80 later this year, seems fully aware that the scraps of information audiences may know -- mainly Phoenix and Stone in a teacher-student affair -- are a bit of misdirection. Allen may read his press after all, teasing at the connections anyone looking to get upset by another age-imbalanced on-screen romance will make to his own off-screen life, long a source of simmering, and recently renewed, controversy. As Abe splits his time between Jill and Rita, and as scenes move from one to the other, a viewer may be rooting for Rita to be the one at Abe’s side and let down when she is not.

In early scenes, Phoenix’s pot belly essentially precedes him on-screen, and his boozy blankness when he first meets the college dean is a thing of understated comic, awkward wonder, timed just behind the beat. As the story moves along and his somnambulant stupor turns to confident excitement and then mania, Phoenix manages the rare feat of playing the male lead in a Woody Allen film without aping the well-known manner of Woody Allen.

Coming after Phoenix’s astonishing recent run of physically transformative, emotionally explosive performances, including The Master, Her, The Immigrant and Inherent Vice, it is likely this will be dismissed as a lesser turn. Yet no one conveys inner torment quite like he does, and today any role Phoenix takes on makes for necessary viewing, as he is the most exciting American actor working today.

The idea of Parker Posey in a Woody Allen movie brings to mind a certain loose, fast-talking urbane type, and it is to the credit of both of them that here she is not that. Rather, she gives a moody, wise performance that underscores just how underserved Posey has been by Hollywood and even its indie outliers. Her performance is steely rather than brassy, tinged with sadness, desperation and resignation, and hopefully sparks a new run of mature, resonant roles.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji brings a lush, idyllic quality to the tree-lined campus. (The film was shot in Rhode Island.) A spectacular moment when Stone’s character looks out to see Phoenix’s character standing on a dock at the edge of a lake essentially encapsulates the entire movie, as the light shimmering off the water backlights him into an obscuring darkness even as he stands fully in the sun, an unknowable specter. Allen’s longtime editor, Alisa Lepselter, creates a relentless rhythm for the film, building a churning, inevitable momentum.

Irrational Man will likely change no one’s mind about what to do with Woody Allen.

There will undoubtedly be those who will comb this film for signals or confessions, tells or traces of something more. Down to the 1960s soul jazz of the Ramsey Lewis Trio featured on the soundtrack, in its own strange, deliberate way the film does wind up feeling surprising, fresh even, as Allen finds new ways to explore some of his most longstanding preoccupations.

The film’s most unexpected wallop, right at the end, is a deeply felt consideration not only of how decisions and actions alter the main character of Abe but also his unintended collateral victims and what they are forced to live with after. Irrational Man never does make sense of the inscrutable Abe, just as most people, Allen included, remain mysteries to themselves and others. This finally reveals the film to be neither comedy nor drama, but an all too human horror story where the monster is within.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.