At one point in Woody Allen’s new film, Irrational Man, Roy (Jaime Blackley), the angelically patient boyfriend of college student Jill (Emma Stone), requests, exasperated: “Can we please change the subject from Abe Lucas?” He might as well be pleading on the audience’s behalf. Irrational Man functions under the misguided notion that Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), an existentially beleaguered philosophy professor, is very interesting. Indeed, “interesting” is repeated often in Jill’s voiceover explanation of her infatuation with him. Her lack of a better word is supposed to be ironic, of course, as is Abe’s candor at the lectern distinguishing the hard facts of life from philosophy’s “verbal masturbation.” But as Allen should really already know by his 45th feature and 80th year, self-reflexivity doesn’t in and of itself redeem a man who isn’t so much irrational as just plain old insufferable.

Jill’s rhapsodic narration is echoed by a chorus of chatter across the fictional Braylin campus, where Abe is the newest high-profile hire. Rumors abound of Abe’s social work abroad, alcoholism, and having run afoul of his previous employers for his radical views; all are apparently true, but none are particularly scintillating. There’s potential here for good satire. It’s hard to imagine academic cults of personality ever seeming more ludicrous than they do in the age of the corporate university, where the humanities exist as perennial dependents, alive only by the mercy of the more productive disciplines. Instead, Allen plays the university straight; Newport’s Salve Regina University stands in as the blandly pretty backdrop for Abe’s navel-gazing nonsense, which includes a second act scheme to murder a crooked judge that lends Abe’s life renewed meaning.

The murder plot is the film’s most reliable source of momentum. Conflating erectile dysfunction with spiritual emptiness might be a cheap shot, but it makes for a pretty funny pair of rhyming scenes showing Abe’s bedroom performance before and after he hatches his plan. It also queues up wistful memories of Allen’s once-unimpeachable faculty for sex farce. The plan inevitably unravels, and the remaining running time is devoted to Abe’s affair with Jill.

Predictably enough, the affair is staged in utterly tone deaf fashion, despite clear attempts by Allen to cover his bases. Abe resists Jill’s advances at first, but opens his extracurricular time to her anyway, and eventually relents. Their dalliances don’t escape the notice of the rumor mill, and eventually they’re even having dinner with her parents, who teach in the music department. Braylin’s rules against faculty-student fraternizing are paid lip service but never does anyone raise any ethical objection to their relationship. Irrational Man yearns for a world where professors and pupils share beds in perfect harmony. It’s the movie companion to Laura Kipnis’s notorious essay on “sexual terror,” which expressed similar longings. Whether or not that world ever actually existed, for those of us in the scholarly trenches and keeping abreast of the news, the whole thing feels gross and sad.

I’d like to close by calling your attention to Parker Posey. As the unhappily married chemistry professor Rita, she spends the film in an inexplicable and ultimately fruitless pursuit of Abe. The role is woefully underwritten, and yet Posey buzzes with the energy of knowing she is far more interesting than either lead. Her face conveys multitudes, commanding our attention, threatening to steal every scene. We long for her astonishing turn as the enigmatic Liz on Louie, but that’s because Louis C.K. knew what to do with a woman like Posey. Allen knows only how to put her in a room with Stone and cast her as the unwanted middle-aged grotesque.

Those scenes between Stone and Posey are easily the film’s most clueless. Irrational Man doesn’t just fail the Bechdel Test, it actively defies it. At one point Abe paraphrases Simone de Beauvoir’s famous observation that women only exist in relation to men. The joke is that Abe seems to have missed de Beauvoir’s point. So too, it seems, has Allen.

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