Friday, August 7, 2015

Irrational Man: The perfect crime?

Irrational Man (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Lively philosophical discussions can be vicarious fun, but — as this film’s title character frequently reminds us — the theories of Sartre, Nietzsche and Kant don’t hold sway in the real world of blood, sweat and tears.

And when somebody does take such concepts to heart ... well, that can be a dangerous thing indeed.

Despite gentle admonitions from Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), who is trying to be the
responsible adult, Jill (Emma Stone) allows herself to fall in love with him. And, truth be
told, Abe probably doesn't mind that much...
Woody Allen’s newest dramedy is another of his occasional musings on crime and punishment — with that deliberate nod to Dostoyevsky — to be placed on a shelf alongside 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and 2005’s Match Point. In each case, we’re confronted with a character who tries to argue himself into a “just” crime ... whereupon, as viewers, we’re forced to confront how subsequent events challenge our own comfort zone.

It’s an unsettling notion, because we prefer our murderers to be easily identifiable lunatics along the lines of Charles Manson or Robert Pickton. No surprise, then, that Agatha Christie based her entire mystery career on the opposite notion: that casual killers likely live among us, cheerfully interacting with friends and neighbors on a regular basis.

But the bad guys and gals always get caught, in a Christie novel. Not necessarily so in real life, or in a Woody Allen film, where chance and circumstance might allow somebody to get away with murder. A sobering thought, and even more so Allen’s directorial approach makes things so light and droll.

Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), emotionally damaged and forever awash in single-malt scotch, has accepted a summer session post at Braylin, a small East Coast college. He drags along a cloud of dark despair like a puppy on a leash, barely able to muster the will to show up for each day’s classes.

He’s a shattered idealist: a former political activist and impassioned deep thinker, who traveled the world and tried to help victims in disaster zones ... only to conclude that, for all his efforts, nothing changed. People continue to suffer and die; evil governments and corporations continue to aid and abet such misery. So what’s the point?

There’s also something mildly troubling, even dangerous, about Abe. This isn’t a jovial, rumpled university rascal along the lines of Michael Douglas’ Grady Tripp, in the 2000 adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Abe radiates anxiety like musk; we’re hardly surprised when, at a party, he impulsively seizes a pistol and horrifies everybody by spinning the chamber and playing Russian roulette with himself.

Phoenix slides smoothly into this unkempt, somewhat squalid role, his pot belly not at all concealed beneath loose-fitting shirts likely tossed onto his bedroom floor each evening, and snatched up and worn again the following day. He channels some of the perpetual haze that propelled his dog-nuts private investigator in last year’s Inherent Vice, but the shading is different; glimpses of the once-romantic Abe emerge in fits and starts ... just enough to persuade students and faculty colleagues that yes, an intriguing and ferociously inquisitive mind exists beneath the scruffy surface. Somewhere.

No surprise, then, that he catches the attention of Rita Richards (Parker Posey), an unhappily married science professor who dreams of leaving her humdrum life for a new beginning in Spain. The twitchy and mildly daft Posey is perfectly cast as one of Allen’s eternally angst-ridden women, forever chattering away about the benefits of analysis, New Age diets and marijuana.

At the same time, Abe becomes an object of interest to one of his students: Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), a bright, clean-cut young woman who has grown up at Braylin, where her parents (Betsy Aidem and Ethan Phillips) are professors. Abe praises one of Jill’s papers; she’s flattered. She’s a small-town gal with a steady boyfriend — Jamie Blackley, as Roy — suddenly confronted by this worldly, fascinating older man who represents everything she’s never experienced.

That he’s a tortured poet is merely icing on the cake.

They start spending time together, although Abe — chivalry still present — is careful to keep the relationship platonic ... even though he doesn’t want to. Sensing this, Jill soon abandons any pretense of concealing her own interest.

Then fate intervenes, in the form of a conversation Abe and Jill overhear at a diner: a divorced woman in tears, about to lose custody of her children to a vengeful ex-husband, because of the blatantly unfair behavior of the good ol’ boy judge handling the case. As disinterested eavesdroppers, Abe and Jill are incensed: Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they agree, if that damned judge suffered a heart attack, or something equally lethal?

Something. Equally. Lethal.

Abe can’t get that notion, once planted, out of his mind. It consumes him. Worse yet, it revives and energizes him. He once again becomes the impassioned logician whose nimble oratory inspired readers, colleagues and students. As a result, he becomes even more appealing to both Rita and Jill.

Allen’s touch is light throughout: absolutely right for what is, for the most part, a wry and airy romantic triangle fueled by the sly banter and arty musings that have characterized the writer/director’s work for approaching half a century. (Now, as back then, I suspect Allen’s signature shtick plays better on both coasts, than in the American heartland.)

Phoenix and Posey are funny together, in the sense that we’re encouraged to laugh at the way Abe and Rita so ludicrously magnify the supposed importance of their silly little problems. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Phoenix and Stone are a sweet and charming couple, playing out the typical Woody Allen male fantasy of the much younger woman attracted to the older guy.

A cliché, to be sure, but — as in so many earlier cases, in so many earlier Allen films — the stars here sell the contrivance. Stone is particularly adept at the flustered, naturalistic, self-conscious chatter that Allen has written as “typical dialog” in so many of his films; she makes the (seemingly) spontaneous, unfiltered conversational fits and starts sound authentic, and we genuinely believe that Jill is responding instinctively to Abe’s increasingly unexpected behavior.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to believe that Jill’s parents would be so blasé about the fact that their college-age daughter is sliding into a relationship with a faculty colleague, and one with a questionable reputation, at best. Even in the realm of absurdly permissive, progressive university types, this seems a stretch. Indeed, none of Jill’s interactions with her parents feel the slightest bit real; they’re all stage-y artifice.

In great contrast, the quietly understated Blackley is just right as poor, patient Roy: obviously aware of what’s going down, and unable to get his longtime girlfriend to even acknowledge her wandering gaze. The dissolving Jill/Roy dynamic, so appealing when we initially encounter them as a couple, is genuinely sad.

Everything is the stuff of quiet romantic melodrama ... until it isn’t. Because, having been presented with this apparent opportunity to do a genuinely good deed — right a blatant wrong, even if the “solution” would be wrong itself — Abe can’t let go of it.

And so ... ah, but that would be telling.

As is typical of Allen, the soundtrack is assembled from source music: in this case a blend of Bach preludes (Jill also is a piano student) and frothy jazz combos, mostly classic Ramsey Lewis Trio recordings such as “The ‘In’ Crowd,” “Look-A-Here” and “Wade in the Water.” These melodic selections become an increasingly ironic counterpoint to on-screen events.

Exiting the theater, this little drama finally having played out, we can’t help feeling troubled by having enjoyed it even a little, let alone (in many cases) quite a bit. Our reaction is somewhat akin to what Hitchcock did in Rear Window, by turning us into initially uncomfortable — but increasingly willing — voyeurs.

But of course that’s the whole point of Allen’s Irrational Man, wherein the theoretical, despite being heinous, is made enticing.

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