Woody Allen invokes both Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alfred Hitchock in his latest, the surprising and ambitious Irrational Man. Watching this film, there are definite hints of the power of Allen’s best work – 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and especially 2005’s Match Point – but some crippling flaws leave what could have been a runaway success with a quite obvious limp.
When the film begins we are immediately introduced to a rather ragged-looking Joaquin Phoenix as Professor Abe Lucas, who has just been offered a new role teaching undergraduate philosophy. There, he meets student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) and the two immediately begin a complex courtship. What seems to begin as one of Allen’s trademark yuppie romances takes an odd turn when Abe and Jill overhear a conversation in a café and some of Abe’s darker eccentricities come to light.
The similarities to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment are not accidental – the author and book are name-checked several times – but ultimately the homage to the classic of Russian literature is half-baked. Like most of Allen’s films, Irrational Man speeds by at a relatively breezy 96 minutes, which is nowhere near enough time to come to grips with a character as complex as Abe should be.
The film’s first act in particular suffers from issues with structure and pacing. The narrative seems to speed ahead from the get-go with no sense of coherence or consistency. Furthermore, much of the dialogue is stilted and comes across oddly out-of-context, as if a large chunk of this section were left on the cutting room floor.
Once the narrative gets properly moving, though, things seem to come into focus more. Murder is one of Allen’s favourite subjects and here he revels in it. One just wishes that more time had been devoted to getting to the bottom of who Abe Lucas is. Witnessing the games that Abe plays, it's hard not to be reminded of Alfred Hitchock's taut psychological thriller Rope, but unfortunately Irrational Man never plumbs the dark depths of the human psyche like Hitchcock's does.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is fine, but it’s nothing spectacular. Emma Stone too does a serviceable job without stealing the show. The real star of the ensemble is Parker Posey, in the small but important role of Rita, a colleague of Abe’s who seeks to be his muse in order to escape a failing marriage. Posey brings an enormous amount of personality to her role and could have been another one of Allen’s iconic neurotic women if the part were bigger.
Ultimately, Irrational Man is not an unsatisfying film. Its ending wraps things up nicely and overall it makes for a fitfully funny (if not particularly subtle) jab at elitist intellectualism that Allen does so well. The film would have been better, but it’s frustratingly uneven and too restrained given the subject matter. This is a film with which Allen could have taken flight, but instead he’s played it far too safe.
Irrational Man opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday August 20.