People are programmed to laugh at Woody Allen films, and for good reason. They’re consistently funny. But then every now and then Allen throws a curve ball and makes a straight-ahead drama.
Yet audiences are accustomed to laugh regardless of the mood. In the trailer for Irrational Man an early line about the lead character got a huge audience response at a recent screening before the main feature. Having already seen Irrational Man I knew that the movie has a somber tone and laughs are mainly subliminal. It’s really kind of brilliant when you realize that a filmmaker can elicit nervous laughter despite there being no comedy at play.
Irrational Man operates in the universe of crime drama. Specifically IM takes the novel Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky and mines some elements like how to commit the perfect murder while jettisoning other parts like the Columbo-esque detective (Portifiry Petrovich). Allen doesn’t hide his admiration of Dostoyevsky, even including a direct visual reference to the book. Another plot point taken from Crime and Punishment has one character discovering that the lead character has perpetrated what they consider to be a perfect murder and urges them to confess to the police. (Just as an aside, Dostoyevsky came up with his psychologically perceptive detective nearly 100 years before Columbo aired on television. Another cultural reference to Portifiry is Fichet, the detective from the 1955 French film Les diabolique.)
Joaquin Phoenix knows no limits to his commitment to the craft of acting. Phoenix seems to have put on several inches to his gut that plays into the fact that his character, a philosophy professor at a fictional New England college, is a functioning alcoholic. Flick was shot at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. Lensing by Darius Khondji captures autumnal hues as well as establishes that the school is close to water. Emma Stone and Parker Posey co-star.
There’s a thriller aspect to Irrational Man, firstly as Phoenix plots his perfect crime and starts stalking his intended victim. Secondly, after the murder is a complex series of scenes that make you think the murderer will actually get away with his deed. But like any crime there is always a paper trail as well as clues that are more obvious from an objective view, not the subjective view of the killer.
Fans of Allen’s cinematic work will embrace Irrational Man, what with its character’s that wear their neurosis on their sleeve. Regular audiences that go expecting big laughs or the next Midnight in Paris will find a tightly constructed drama with an existential core. Phoenix’s character of Abe does, after all, teach Kant.
Irrational Man opens exclusively this weekend at the Landmark River Oaks Three.
— Michael Bergeron