In “Irrational Man” Woody Allen turns Fyodor Dostoevsky’s dense philosophical novel “Crime and Punishment” into a light modern-day mystery/romance. The film addresses a number of interesting philosophical ideas-- mainly existential choice (the freedom to choose) as well as randomness and chance and how those ideas interact with each other in real life. Unfortunately, Allen’s script doesn’t explore these concepts in any great depth—the movie often feels like a bland philosophy lecture. On top of that I just couldn’t buy the central relationship between its two protagonists.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a philosophy professor who takes up a summer teaching job at a small town college. He’s painfully misanthropic, disillusioned and seemingly on the verge of suicide. Why? Because the world is unfair and he feels he can’t make any meaningful impact. Things change when he befriends one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone) and when they’re out one day, he happens to randomly eavesdrop on a conversation concerning a judge that’s abusing his powers Hearing this, Abe has an a-ha moment and decides to commit a rather drastic act, a decision that gives him a new lease on life.
This almost one hundred and eighty degree turnaround in Abe’s attitude is the first problem “Irrational Man” runs into. Abe decides to commit this act primarily for selfish reasons; he’s not going to sit back and accept the unfairness of this situation, he’s going to take action. In his mind he’s exercising his freedom to choose and feels doing this act will make the world a better place. While this philosophical reasoning is interesting Abe’s change comes too abruptly. He becomes a different man, happy and relaxed. He’s so sure in his decision that there’s no convincing him otherwise, a change in demeanor I just simply couldn’t believe.
Additionally, after his a-ha moment Abe becomes a rather stale, one-sided character. Like Abe, part of Ralskolnikov (the protagonist of “Crime and Punishment”) does believe his existential act is just and beneficial but there’s another part of him that’s racked with guilt and paranoia. He even becomes physically sick. That other side of Ralskolnikov (the side that makes him multilayered) is missing from Abe. You’d think that as a professional thinker, Abe would consider the repercussions of his actions and have that moral debate in his mind but he doesn’t. He practically shuts his brain off. There’s not much more character development after his turning point and Abe ceases to be a compelling character.
Another problem with “Irrational Man” is it deals with its philosophical ideas, themes and almost everything else in such a heavy-handed, surface level way. For starters, the fact that Abe is indeed a philosophy professor dealing with this big existential crisis feels too on the nose, too obvious. On top of that, between the hindsight voiceover testimonials from Abe and Jill, scenes depicting Abe giving lectures on concepts acted out in the movie and the various philosophical discussions between characters throughout, the film doesn’t leave much for the viewers to dissect afterwards. Everything is left out in the open. To hammer home the “Crime and Punishment” angle further we get a scene where Jill finds Abe’s personal copy of the novel with the judge’s name written in it.
In a scene early on during a lecture, Abe discusses the difference between philosophy in class and applying philosophical ideas to real world situations. In classrooms, you’re dealing with highly theoretical situations that may not fully apply to real life. It’s ironic then, that the picture itself takes such a textbook, didactic approach to its “real life” situations. The only thing missing would be to have Allen himself, standing off to the side of each scene, with a Philosophy 101 textbook open, breaking the fourth wall and instructing us on how a particular philosophical concept applies to the scene at hand.
Finally, the most frustrating aspect of “Irrational Man” is the relationship between Abe and Jill. From the get go Jill is infatuated with Abe; he even rejects her advances at first. She says she’s “in love” with him multiple times. Why is she so in love with him? At the beginning, Abe is a miserable, alcoholic, uncaring schlub and yet she can’t get him out of her mind. We’re told by others that he can be “charismatic--” not once is he charismatic. Jill says he has lots of problems but he’s “brilliant.” We don’t see this brilliance because he goes from being miserable to upbeat and one note. And anyway, not all brilliant people are necessarily sexy. In other words, I didn't buy their romantic relationship for a second and I found it particularly maddening that Jill is the one who lusts so hard after Abe. It sort of feels like an old cynical writer’s fantasy: cute, smart, funny, young Emma Stone lusting after the extreme misanthrope!
"Irrational Man" flat lines and fails to make good use of its meaty concepts. The ending is too quick, wrapping things up too neatly and again, not giving the audience anything to chew on. All in all, the picture is mostly a skin deep, heavy-handed philosophy lecture.