Review by Pamela Zoslov
In 2008, Woody Allen said that he isn't an intellectual. “I'm basically a low-culture person,” he said to a group of film critics, including me. "I'm not saying I'm an insensitive Neanderthal. But basically, I'm the guy who's watching the playoffs and drinking a Beck's. I'm not at the opera. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of people thinking I'm an intellectual." Here is what I wrote at the time:
If fans have mistaken a beer-drinking, Knicks-watchings shlub for an intellectual, it's understandable: Allen's movies are studded with references to Kafka, Freud and Tolstoy, and his filmography includes homages to Bergman and Fellini. But beneath it all, he insists, beats the heart of a comedy writer. During his nightclub days, audiences assumed, based on his bookish appearance, that he was an academic type, and the persona stuck. When he wrote jokes, he says, it seemed funny to drop names like "Kierkegaard." "I learned to utilize the intellectual patois," he says. "It's just a skill. People think of me more seriously than I really am.” (Sadly, many people — myself firmly excluded — now have darker opinions of Woody Allen.)
Allen's new film, his 50th by the way, is IRRATIONAL MAN. It gives voice to Allen's lifelong philosophical questing, while also laughing at itself for doing so. The screenplay doesn't merely drop the names of Kierkegaard and Kant and Heidegger and Nietzsche, it wrestles extensively with issues of ethics, existence, morality and meaning.
The seeker is Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor played by Joaquin Phoenix. Lucas joins the faculty of Braylin, a liberal-arts college in Rhode Island, and his reputation precedes him. Dark, moody and handsome, Abe is said to be haunted by a divorce, or the death of his friend in Iraq, who was beheaded or, alternately, stepped on a land mine. Abe drinks to excess and broods ceaselessly. Jill (Emma Stone), a gifted undergraduate, is particularly taken with the troubled professor, to the annoyance of her boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley). Roy predicts, accurately, that Jill will fall in love with Abe.
Jill, however, has competition for Abe's affections. Rita (Parker Posey), an unhappily married science professor, determines to get Abe into her bed. Rita also wants to run away with Abe to Spain, a destination she considers “romantic.”
Blocked as a writer and as a lover, Abe is too tormented to perform sexually with Rita, who offers to “unblock” him. For a while, Abe even resists becoming more than friends with his smitten student, Jill. The college community witnesses the depth of Abe's gloom when Jill and Roy take him to a party, where he plays a one-man game of Russian Roulette, spinning the cylinder and pulling the trigger not once, but twice.
His behavior is alarming, but it's catnip to Jill. “He's so self-destructive, but so brilliant,” she muses. “There's something about his pain that's exciting. He's truly an original thinker.” Allen winks at the romantic naïvete of young women, but also makes Jill the smartest person in the film, the only one who sees what's going on.
At a diner one day, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation that inspires Abe to consider something radical: committing a murder. With echoes of Crime and Punishment, Allen's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, and Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the plan to commit a seemingly motiveless murder rejuvenates Abe. Suddenly he has a zest for life and love and sex and hearty breakfasts. He even wins a prize for Jill at an amusement park (that setting also recalling STRANGERS ON A TRAIN). Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Abe feels like an extraordinary man, one whose act of killing will make the world a better place. He's thrilled to be making transition from “man of thought” to “man of action.” He stalks his prey, feeling fully alive while planning to take a life. What seemed like genius now looks like madness.
“Murder comedy” is something Allen does well, notably in the Marshall Brickman collaboration MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993). This latest dark comedy is a little thinner, and a bit abrupt in its ending, but it's beautifully made, as always with Allen, whose basic filmmaking craftsmanship is often taken for granted. The plot is brisk and absorbing, the casting is perfection, and the music — classic mid-'60s jazz by the Ramsey Lewis Trio — could not be more apt. 3 3/4 out of 4 stars.