Cannes 2015 – Irrational Man (Woody Allen)

What if our traditionally accepted notions of morality are rigid, and conventional sets of ethics ought to be relaxed as per situation? And what if a condemnable action is one that fosters more good than bad in the long run? Such are the age old moral quandaries that drive Woody Allen’s new erratic comedy Irrational Man.

As Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives in a small town to assume a tenure as a college professor, he is at a point in his life where he needs a major shake-up. He’s a talented writer of deviously acerbic philosophical papers, but he is afflicted by existential torments that mirror the mantras he critiques. Once he meets Jill (Emma Stone) and Rita (Parker Posey), he becomes the reluctant object of their romantic and carnal advances. Jill is a young, fickle student in Abe’s philosophy class, and has a boyfriend her own age who, on paper, appears to be everything she should need. But once she starts spending time with Abe outside of classes, she is intoxicated by his personal history, intelligence, and apparent self-destructive proclivities, and he becomes the object of her newfound Super[wo]man complex. Meanwhile, Rita is a fellow professor at the same college as Abe, and she is bored in her passionless marriage. Though she craves romance, and ideally would abscond with Abe to Spain, or really anywhere abroad or exotic, she would be more than happy to just arrive at his residence with a bottle of single malt Scotch, and see if she is able to wrestle his pants off. While Abe is initially indifferent to their lusty propositions, after he and Jill overhear a stranger’s conversation in the booth behind them in a restaurant, he begins to find a macabre, unlikely new sense of purpose that becomes a catalyst in the complications of his relationships with these two women, and challenges his ethical pre-suppositions.

In what will likely prove to be the most twisted, dark feel-good comedy of the year, Woody Allen defies what is appropriate or in good taste, in moments as delightfully bizarre as a celebratory dinner to commemorate a death. No stranger to the consideration of philosophical teachings – his filmography is littered with serious and satirical nods to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard – Allen now opts to lampoon and pervert the edicts of Sartre and Kant as Abe endeavours to rationalize and justify a traditionally reprehensible set of actions. Hearing a conversation about how an unfair judge is about to tear a mother away from her children simply for the sake of the exertion of his power, Abe has an epiphany that making plans to poison this judge will offer him the opportunity to change the world for the better, and make his own life matter. It bears great testimony to the strength of Allen’s writing that Abe’s implausible rationale actually sounds remarkably coherent. It is shockingly easy to follow, sympathize with, and even root for Abe’s increasingly twisted logic, and the scenario provides unlikely catharsis, many times over.

Emma Stone is the best she has ever been in her role as Jill. Her trademark quirkiness has never been better suited for any other director than in the way that it seamlessly clicks with the neurotic Woody Allen’s. That Jill is Abe’s aggressive suitor is a welcomed subversion to the clichéd motif of the professor who preys on his much younger female student, and this characteristic of hers provides Stone with the opportunity to stretch herself on both comedic and dramatic levels. In Irrational Man‘s coda, Allen makes a few missteps in the development of Jill’s ethical trajectory (formerly a free thinker who both consciously and unconsciously strays from the beaten path, she suddenly gravitates to obvious moral rulings), but Stone can’t be faulted for a few minor mistakes in Allen’s writing, especially when she ends her performance on decidedly high notes.

Woody Allen is famous for temporary creative ruts, but Irrational Man is easily one of his most clever and provocative recent films. While its final conclusion is more definite than it should be, Irrational Man inspires a lot of thought in the depth and imagination between its laughs, and is so entertaining that it is hard to mind it.