In “Irrational Man” Woody Allen turns Fyodor Dostoevsky’s dense philosophical novel “Crime and Punishment” into a light, modern-day murder mystery/romance.
The film addresses a number of interesting philosophical ideas — mainly, how existential choice (the freedom to choose), randomness and chance interact with each other in real life. Unfortunately, Allen’s script doesn’t explore these concepts in any great depth; instead, 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. 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 involving a judge who’s abusing his powers. Hearing this, Abe decides to commit a rather drastic act, a decision that gives him a new lease on life.
This almost-180-degree turnaround in Abe’s attitude is the first problem “Irrational Man” runs into; it 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.
Then 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. This other side of Ralskolnikov 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, 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, superficial way. For starters, the fact that Abe is a philosophy professor dealing with this existential crisis feels too obvious. And with the hindsight voice-over 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 afterward. 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.
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. 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.
Other than this relationship, the acting is mostly strong, and certain individual scenes and discussions are enlightening. But the movie flat-lines and fails to make good use of its meaty concepts, and the ending is too quick, wrapping things up too neatly. In the end, the picture is mostly a skin-deep, heavy-handed philosophy lecture.
(Rated R for some language and sexual content.)