Rhode Island Murder Mystery: Irrational Man
Abe Lucas is a respected philosophy professor with a lot of baggage. He drinks a lot, thinks little of his fellow professors, and has displayed questionable conduct outside the classroom. However, his reputation as an educator gets him a position at tiny Braylin College in Rhode Island in Irrational Man. Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) shares the bleakest views of mankind with his students. One day, he asks student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) to stay after class to discuss a paper she wrote, challenging his views. As a result, he starts to grow an interest in Jill and in student activities, which he had never done at any other school. One night, at a student party, he even behaves dangerously when he takes a gun another student found. The incident changes him as he becomes more energetic, and he becomes involved with Jill. However, she already has a boyfriend in Roy (Jamie Blackley), while Abe somehow managed to make friends with fellow Braylin professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), a married woman whose husband is often not home.
Abe's newfound enthusiasm toward life grows stronger when he and Jill overhear a conversation while having lunch in a restaurant. A woman at the table next to them shares her concerns she'll lose custody of her children because she can't afford many more delays granted her ex-husband by the court. When the woman mentions the judge by name, Abe starts to believe that the world would be better off without the judge. With no connection to the judge, Abe believes he can commit a perfect murder. He learns the judge's habits, and using Rita's lab key, he grabs some cyanide. Abe knows the judge orders orange juice from a certain restaurant, and gets a similar juice cup, which he laces with the poison. Abe switches the cups while the judge isn't looking, and the judge dies. An autopsy quickly discovers the poison. Talk circulates around the campus about the death, and Abe says things that lead Jill to wonder if he did this. She learns more that confirms her suspicion, and urges Abe to surrender when another man gets charged with the murder. Abe tells Jill he will while secretly making other plans.
I'm one of those Woody Allen followers who looks at releases like Irrational Man and remembers earlier Allen films that are related, but much better. In this case, both Manhattan Murder Mystery and Crimes And Misdemeanors fit the description. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody and others in his apartment (especially Diane Keaton) start to think a neighbor killed his wife. In Crimes And Misdemeanors, a woman dies at the hands of her married lover while the man attempts to cover his tracks while police investigate the crime. Both of these films have a better sense of suspense, storytelling, and even humor than the very predictable and very humorless Irrational Man. Allen, who also wrote this script, gives away the ending with Jill's opening narration. Also, these characters and their problems aren't very interesting. Abe has established himself as irritating and arrogant, so I don't see why Jill or Rita would want much to do with Abe off campus. When Jill becomes involved with Abe, Roy should have dumped her instead of pining for her and accepting that their relationship was non-exclusive. Max Fischer, in his days at Rushmore, did better work with familiar material than Allen does here.
I feel sorry for the actors who came out and gave a good effort, in spite of the drivel Allen has given them. Phoenix has a good transformation from anti-social to homicidal as he loves the thought of being a silent force of justice who can't stay silent. He has an ego that demands his day and his way. Stone seems to be Allen's muse du jour, and does fine as a student swept up in the illusion Abe presents. Jill is the daughter of Braylin educators (Betsy Aidem and Ethan Phillips) who encourage Jill in her music lessons, they engage her in theories on the judge's death. Those family moments are the ones that break the overall bleakness of the film. Posey and Blackley are effective in roles that are primarily thankless.
Irrational Man sets a new low in works created by Woody Allen. The acting remains strong, but the story of a self-centered professor and the women who care about him never engaged me in a good way. This film continues the recent trend where Allen recycles his old work, and the recycling here shows its obvious weaknesses. Most of Allen's movies since Sweet And Lowdown have been entertaining, but story elements in most of them serve as a reminder to his followers of earlier and better efforts of his. Irrational Man comes just two years after one of his best films of recent years, Blue Jasmine. The results have been diminishing since then. I'm hoping there's at least one more great film in Allen, but Irrational Man makes me wonder if there's another film that's even decent left in him.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Irrational Man 1.5 stars. A film that makes no sense.