Verdict: Well written, conceived and performed, but not quite top shelf Woody – it is cerebral rather than from the guts, and lacks emotional oomph.
Another year, another Woody. And I’m pleased to report that this is a good one.
Of course, the Woody haters will get off on hating it – that’s what they do. And indeed, the initial set-up will have them gleefully salivating bile: yep, it’s that older guy + younger woman equation again (cue howls of derision). And of course, one of them’s in existential crisis – no prizes for guessing which.
Joaquin Phoenix gets the older bloke gig this time, playing Abe Lucas, an alcoholic philosophy professor whose reputation as a womaniser and purveyor of controversial ideas sends waves of excitement around an East coast uni to which he has just been appointed. It’s not long before he has two women pursuing him. Rita (Parker Posey) is a fellow academic bored with her husband who throws herself at him from the outset (she’s around his age, so good luck with that, honey). Then there’s one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone), intelligent, yummy and drawn to his mind and vulnerability (that’s the girl).
If you think you see the way this is going, think again. There’s murder in the air here, not romance.
Abe has lost his verve for life, can’t get it up when Rita manoeuvres him into bed, and gently but firmly spurns Jill’s advances, despite her assuring him that she is not committed to her boyfriend. Indeed, he’s not even tempted. Yes, he’s in a bad way!
He takes some pleasure in declaring philosophy “verbal masturbation” before his startled class, adding that real life and philosophy are far removed from each other. This is all very familiar Woody territory, but the direction of the story changes abruptly when Abe and Jill eavesdrop on a woman in a café complaining that she is the victim of a corrupt judge. This prompts a philosophical discussion on the morality of murdering someone like the judge for the greater good, and sets off a vigilante fire in Abe that restores his sense of meaning in life – along with his libido. Before long, he is plotting the perfect murder, with the judge as his target. Jill is stimulated by his apparent hypothesising, never imagining that he is not merely theorising.
Woody lays bare the obvious Dostoyevskyan allusion (Crime and Punishment) – as well he might, for Abe is worlds apart from Doesteyevsky’s killer-with-a-conscience, Raskolnikov, who is ultimately honourable. Abe is drawn to kill for monstrously selfish reasons: in taking a life he rescues his own. While he claims to act out of altruism, in fact he gets off on power, on the stalking of his unwitting victim, on playing God, and most of all on getting away with murder. His motivations are egotistical, not morally or philosophically based. He is a heartless narcissist, enjoying playing cat and mouse games with his mentee Jill when she learns that the judge has actually been murdered and begins to piece together clues that point towards him as a credible suspect. It eventually becomes clear that he cares not at all for her – or anyone, but himself.
Woody’s in fine form as a writer here, bringing off a well-conceived and intriguing crime yarn in similar vein to his excellent Match Point (2005), while working with some shrewd ironies. For example, the titular Irrational Man, Abe, thinks of himself as supremely rational, but is deluded; his fond self-image is completely at odds with the reality and is ultimately his undoing. And his mentee, the infatuated innocent Jill, seeks inspiration and guidance from him, yet she is far more grounded morally, and more authentically a lover of philosophy and ideas. This contrasting of characters is well managed, as is their development.
Consummately well written and crafted, and competently performed, this is nevertheless not quite top shelf Woody – it is cerebral rather than from the guts, and lacks emotional oomph. However, the intrigue is sustained throughout, the narrative jigsaw pieces come together satisfyingly, the characterisation is generally excellent, and there are some nice moments of trademark Woody humour and irony. Like. Quite a lot.
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