For some time, Woody Allen has been churning out a film a year. This year’s Irrational Man is his forty-seventh. For a long time, he has been mining the work of his betters, Bergman and Fellini in the 1980s, and, of late, literary classics too. 2013’s Blue Jasmine was a vulgarization of A Streetcar Named Desire, and Irrational Man takes on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The result is similarly dismal.
Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a fortyish philosophy professor with a dicey reputation. He comes to teach at a small private college in Rhode Island, which regards his hiring as a coup. At a gathering with students, he twice attempts Russian Roulette, and seems displeased at surviving. Resisting an advance from one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone), he finally succumbs to a faculty colleague, Rita (Parker Posey), only to find himself impotent. We get the idea: Abe doesn’t see the point in living, and he isn’t doing very much of it anyway.
This being an Allen film, Abe’s plight seems more ridiculous than sad; his characters are always to some extent poseurs who seem to talk away life even as they experience it, as if it were mere grist for cocktail chatter or interior monologue. Abe is suicidally depressed, but his situation is also jokey, a stand-up comic’s version of Existential Angst. Occasionally this technique is successful for Allen, as in Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but when it isn’t, we are left with characters who are neither funny nor involving.
What bucks Abe up finally Is a conversation overheard in a diner, in which a distraught mother laments the cruelty of a judge who is about to give custody of her children to a sleazoid ex-husband. Abe doesn’t know the woman and never turns around to see her; he makes no attempt to verify her story. He nonetheless decides on the spot to kill the judge. His own absence of motive, he reasons, will both protect and justify him: he will be the anonymous benefactor whose deed will never be traced back to him, but will make the world a better place.
You might suppose a connection here between a man who wants to kill himself and then decides to kill someone else instead. Allen offers us something else in a tidbit about Abe, who it seems has been frustrated trying to do good works in New Orleans after Katrina and then in Darfur. If a lone individual can’t do much about large catastrophes, Abe thinks he can straighten out a single life at least. It’s pretty poor reasoning for a philosopher, but, once the deed is done, he finds an even less convincing rationale: it feels not simply right but good. Life, it seems, is spiced up by death; Abe’s virility returns, and he starts an affair with Jill as well.
This is familiar literary terrain, at least: Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger. If we don’t get the hint, Abe drops a remark about Dostoevsky for us. Alas for him, he hasn’t been quite as clever as he ought to have been, and his mistresses figure out the truth between them. One of them is willing to go off with him to Europe, but the other has more scruples, and so Abe discovers something else: a perfect crime need only be done once, but an imperfect one requires repetition. For this, too, his new-found zest for living provides sufficient justification. Being alive is such a high that nothing can be allowed to interfere with it.
All this sounds like something else, manic depression, but whether Abe has really gone beyond good and evil or Is simply waiting to crash on the downswing is something we never find out. The ending is as conventional, indeed as banal as one could wish, and neither we nor the film’s surviving characters are left any the wiser.
Allen has always been able to secure the services of superior actors; it’s an off-beat gig. Cate Blanchett won an Academy Award as best actress for her heroic effort to make an actual character of Allen’s version of Blanche Dubois in Blue Jasmine. Joaquin Phoenix is perhaps the most gifted American screen actor of his generation, and if anyone could have made Abe Lucas interesting it is he. Allen doesn’t let that happen, and the result is a workmanlike performance in which Phoenix seems to have understood that his main job was not to overinvest himself in a role that nothing could make credible. Emma Stone, Allen’s most recent female favorite, gets most of the good camera angles, and Parker Posey has sly fun as Rita. There are a few moments of visual energy, but Allen has never had a real cinematic style; he’s basically a man of the theater with a camera, and a satirist who’s rarely indulged the mean streak that could have given his work a genuine edge. He should definitely give the classics a break, though. It’s one thing to quote Dostoevsky; it’s another to travesty him.