Woody Allen has a genius for comedy but sometimes makes serious films with few if any laughs. “Irrational Man” is one of these. As the film opens Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), a well-known philosophy professor, arrives at a college to take up a new teaching position at a very low point in his life. He is wallowing in the sorrow he feels over the miseries of the human condition and he finds no meaning in life. He drinks heavily and, a noted womanizer, he has been impotent for a year. He gets little, if any, joy from teaching and writing. One of his students, Jill (Emma Stone), is attracted to his combination of intellectualism and psychological fragility. The turning point in the film (and in Abe’s life) comes when he overhears a conversation of strangers and decides to help one of them by performing a serious criminal act which, to his mind, is morally defensible. He now feels his life has a noble meaning resulting in his breaking out of his despairing mentality and acquiring a renewed zest for living.
There are elements of drama in the film and I would not say it is a total failure, but it’s not much of a success either. It attempts to be a film of ideas but the characters are not fully rounded. We learn a fair amount about Abe but he still seems more of an illustration of a despairing intellectual than a flesh-and-blood human being. He is supposed to be brilliant, but nothing we see indicates that; the viewer has to take it on faith. Emma Stone works hard to make Jill more than just another college student besotted with her professor but only partially succeeds; the screenplay is against her. Parker Posey’s considerable talents are wasted on an underwritten role, that of a neurotic, promiscuous faculty wife.
This film does not hold a candle to Mr. Allen’s most memorable films: Manhattan, Husbands and Wives, and Annie Hall, films with serious plots but also comedy that flows from the characters and the situations to make a seamless whole. It seems to me that when Mr. Allen allows his natural talent for comedy to operate he is somehow more capable of creating believable characters rather than ones that are little more than illustrations in a morality tale.