Irrational Man movie review: the measure of a man’s midlife crisis

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Irrational Man green light

A blithe and chipper drawing-room comedy that, in a deliciously perverse way, plays with notions of chance and karma and very bitter irony.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast

I’m “biast” (con): lukewarm on Woody Allen lately

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The less you know about Woody Allen’s latest film going in, the better. I knew only that Irrational Man was about a philosophy professor, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix: Her), who shakes up a sleepy New England college when he arrives to teach a summer-semester class. I figured that he might end up having an affair with vivacious student Jill (Emma Stone: Aloha) — this is a Woody Allen movie, after all — and I was not wrong in this. Yet Man is so entirely fresh and unclichéd that it’s not even a spoiler to reveal that sleeping with a much young woman who adores him is not how depressed, alcoholic Abe gets his mojo back. This is my favorite movie of Allen’s since Midnight in Paris, and it shares with that film a certain disillusionment with overintellectualizing ourselves into existential funks, though its criticism of that is way bleaker here: Abe tells his students that philosophy is bullshit and that the real world is not a thought exercise, but when he takes a thought exercise and makes it real as a way to get out of his funk, it’s horrifying. Yet as Allen plays with notions of chance and karma and very bitter irony, the tone is blithe and chipper, with a perversely cheery score accompanying some very dark doings. And though there’s nothing laugh-out-loud funny here, Man feels like a drawing-room comedy; the whole cast (also featuring Parker Posey [Grace of Monaco] as another professor who attaches herself to Abe) is amazing, but it’s especially nice to see Stone find a just-right place for her airy insouciance. Best of all for me is the fact that this is a movie that’s mostly about smart people talking about ideas, and those ideas are a direct provocation of a profound matter that countless movies deal with unthinkingly, as a simple plot point or often even as a random happening. Morality is rarely on a movie’s agenda the way it is here. And that is absolutely thrilling.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Irrational Man for its representation of girls and women.

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