Once you open the door to a little lie, you live in a world full of reasons to lie. At least that’s a philosophical perspective a depressed professor tries to explain early in Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s latest film. The academic doesn’t really believe it, and that’s not just because he disagrees professionally. He’s not sure he believes in anything at all, having a reached a point of real and deep psychological despair some point before arriving on campus to start his new teaching position during a sunny summer term. At the film’s core is this man’s search for meaning, a solution for his melancholy impotence, creative and otherwise. He finds it not in drinking or flirting with a pretty student, though they’re sickly good stopgaps, but by deciding suddenly and forcefully to commit a perfect crime. He thinks he's smart enough to get away with murder. Once he’s allowed himself to think about it, he’s in a world full of reasons to transgress.
This is hardly the first film from Woody Allen to consider existential crises, the cruelty of mankind, and the cold possibility of evil going unpunished. (See: Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Match Point, and so on.) But in the breezy drama he makes of it this time sits one of its bitterest expressions. Those interested in biographical criticism will surely find it noteworthy to point out that Allen made this film after renewed scrutiny on his personal life and alleged crimes. Irrational Man makes its professor a source of scorn and gossip, who clings to his sense of self-righteous self-justification, and who ultimately must pay for his hubris. If this is to be read as an expression of Allen, it’s a self-loathing statement. But it’s not a poisoned or stunted film. No, he’s up to his usual lively artifice.
Like so much of his recent output, the film plays like a draft, another sketch of ideas and themes he’s obsessively working over, varying the tone and plot, but flowing from a consistent voice. Here he is once more with the American songbook score, white Windsor font credits, and characters cloaked in the brisk patter of stuffy East Coast midcentury pseudo-intellectuals that maybe only ever really existed in this precise manner in the world of Woody Allen movies. Indeed, here the characters are signifiers in an intellectual exercise, but what a fascinating, dryly nasty little work this is. There’s an extra sting to thinly imagined characters as an expert cast enlivens arch wordiness and cinematographer Darius Khondji (in his fourth collaboration with Allen) creates bright tableaus pinning them in. The result is like a frustrated English major turned half-hearted gag writer punched up a minor forgotten Hitchcock concept.
What lets the picture breathe is ultimately the cold jazzy syncopation of dueling narrators, puncturing the depressed professor’s murderous ideas with the naïve beaming lights of a student. What starts as a typical vaguely queasy older man/younger woman relationship is played for its inappropriateness, and is made to seem wrong as a factor in the plot. We meet the man (Joaquin Phoenix, draining potential ticks from the dialogue with a flattened affect) as he arrives on campus just about ready to kill himself. The woman (Emma Stone, as cheerful as ever) is in his class, and responds eagerly to his praise. When they first embrace, Khondji finds them in the reflection of a funhouse mirror. There’s no denying the warped relationship now, especially as the clearly troubled man soon begins secret murder planning and everyone around the woman – her boyfriend (Jamie Blackley), parents (Betsy Aidem and Ethan Phillips), and chemistry teacher (Parker Posey) – advises her to keep her distance.
A key image is the film’s most striking shot. (It may very well be among the best shots in Allen’s career.) Phoenix stands at the end of a pier, the setting sun silhouetting him, reflecting off the water in a way that ripples his form. He looks like a ghostly shadow lurking in the middle of a picturesque landscape. He’s a figure unknowable, and as Stone questions how much she really understands about him, he grows all the more unspeakably creepy. By allowing us access to both character’s thoughts, we’re allowed full knowledge neither have. Their conflict, present even when neither is aware, gains an interesting friction. They arrive at logical conclusions for their situations, the film snapping shut with a clanging moral, neatly deployed. Philosophy in action, or philosophy inaction, leads them to unsettled conclusions, the sort of world-weary worldview of an old man who once thought his intellectual posturing could beat back despair but isn’t so sure anymore. Here’s a film that says the only rational philosophy is one that sees those who damage others fall to dooms of their own making.