The cruel randomness of chance and the worrying lack of justice in the world: These have been the dominant, compelling themes in Woody Allen’s movies since 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, which was the first time he wrestled with the existential dread of there being no moral center to the universe. Every few years, in films like Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, he has returned to these themes with bold directness, but even seemingly lighthearted offerings such as Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona are, in a sense, about what individuals do with their luck and their free will.
Allen’s latest, Irrational Man (which will hit U.S. theaters July 17), is cut from the same crime-and-punishment cloth as Crimes and Misdemeanors and its follow-up films. Again, Woody takes as fact that we live in a world in which there is no God—and, therefore, no punishment if the guilty get away free. And once again, a murder powers the plot.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a drunken philosophy professor whose latest teaching gig takes him to a sleepy, rich small town in Rhode Island. Brilliant but tortured, articulate but dismissive of the very notion that philosophy (or anything else) can bring meaning to our worthless lives, Abe seems to be on the fast path to oblivion. (He even engages in an impromptu game of Russian roulette at one point to demonstrate how little he cares about his own existence.)
Naturally, such a brooding, complicated figure attracts his impressionable college student Jill (Emma Stone), who’s a sucker for Abe’s doomed, romantic worldview. Even though she has a steady, dependable boyfriend, Jill wants Abe, especially after she hears through the town gossips that he’s bedded his pupils at previous teaching posts. But Abe wants to end that behavior, and so they become friends and he instead taking to romancing a flirty, unhappy married woman (Parker Posey) who wants some adventure in her life.
Irrational Man sets us up to assume that glum Abe’s existential miseries and bedroom misadventures will be the heart of Allen’s film. But then an intriguing, almost inexplicable wrinkle enters the picture. One day, Abe and Jill overhear a distraught woman telling her friends in a restaurant that she’s going to lose custody of her kids to her no-good ex-husband, all because the judge is buddy-buddy with the ex’s lawyer. This scenario presents a real-world test of Abe’s belief that philosophical musings do little to better the world—only decisive action matters. Quietly, he decides that he’s going to kill this judge. No one would suspect him—this woman doesn’t realize he’s been eavesdropping—and, more importantly, this judge has a history of ethically questionable behavior and is keeping a loving mother from her children. What’s the harm—what’s the moral quandary—in offing him?
Abe’s plan of action, which he doesn’t share with Jill or anyone else, sets Irrational Man’s plot in motion, and Allen does a pretty solid job of orchestrating the perfect crime. With a minimum of fuss and plenty of believability, Abe’s murderous scheme is executed smoothly and efficiently. But once the crime is committed, something remarkable happens to Abe: He feels better about himself and the world. Has accepting free will and throwing off the shackles of perceived morality opened the depressive Abe up to finally enjoying life?
As with plenty of recent Allen films, Irrational Man is slacker than one would like. In the early going, Phoenix (making his debut in a Woody film) seems to have been left to his own devices to portray this nihilistic alcoholic. To be sure, the actor has played plenty of distraught men, in films ranging from Two Lovers to The Master, but the character starts off as such a boring carbon copy of many previous tortured Allen protagonists that there’s not much for Phoenix to do. (Also, the weighty philosophy lessons Abe imparts to his students in the opening reels are both painfully on-the-nose thematically and rather awkwardly delivered.)
In addition, the crushing familiarity of other plot elements—the restless woman with the boringly reliable boyfriend, courtships that involve discussions of poetry and philosophy—conspire to drag down Irrational Man a bit. And to be honest, Stone (as she was in Magic in the Moonlight) has the right amount of plucky adorableness but not enough presence. As charismatic as she is, the actress comes across as a bit out-of-her-depth in Allen’s movies, suggesting that his hands-off directing style may not be the best fit for her.
But with those reservations noted, let it be said that there are some quite fine (and quite subtle) twists that Allen brings to the material that make Irrational Man one of the most engaged and unpredictable of his recent output. Even knowing Allen’s previous crime-and-punishment dramas won’t completely prepare you for where the venerable filmmaker is headed this time. And after some early wobbles, Phoenix seems to hone in on the character, perhaps overplaying Abe’s initial sad-sack qualities so as to emphasize the remarkable personal transformation he’ll make over the course of the film.
Speaking of that personal transformation, one of Irrational Man’s bitter ironies is that Abe’s rosier outlook on life is due to a terrible crime he’s committed. Will Allen let him get away with it? And what will it mean if he does? As he has in previous films, Woody obsesses over these questions of luck, fate, guilt and attraction, and they help the movie steamroll over its rough spots. Of course, his detractors will complain he keeps making the same film. Yes, but it remains a good film—and one that continues to fascinate him, and us.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley
Release Date: Screening out of competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.