Woody Allen's late career has been marked by incongruity. Not only in the quality of his films but within the films themselves. There are highs (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and lows (Whatever Works), and the films themselves are airy and shot beautifully while thematically being quite dark and cynical. In his latest reimagining of a classic philosophical narrative, Irrational Man stars Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a drunken philosophy professor whose aimless nihilism is confronted with a Dostoyevskian dilemma. Emma Stone plays Jill Pollard, a diaphanous and idealistic student who becomes dangerously enamoured with Lucas' fatalistic apathy, misinterpreting it for romantic suffering.
Phoenix goes against tradition of other Allen's leading men by avoiding mimicry of Alvy Singer, the protagonist of Annie Hall. Instead, Phoenix's brooding grunts and naturally slurred speech reflect a character that has crumpled under the weight of life and its harsh realities. Suddenly, Lucas (Phoenix) sees a chance at redemption and more crucially, revitalization. Overhearing a sad, although unrealistic, tale of a single mother and cruel judge, the aimless, depressed philosophy professor channels his inner Raskolnikov and convinces himself he must murder the judge, saving the poor woman from a terrible fate.
The film's initial lightheartedness disabuses the audience into thinking this is all just a fantasy, something naughty to awaken the curiosity of the disaffected and moribund professor. But quickly the tone turns very dark. What seemed like a trifle is made urgently real. Echoing his '80s Bergman influenced period, particularly his masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen again challenges the traditional notions of guilt and redemption, and how they are subverted.
Irrational Man is not a masterpiece and probably not even one of his better later works, due mainly to problems with execution. It's quite clumsy in its climax and denouement, as if Allen thought after creating the characters and coming up with the initial conceit that the rest would work itself out on its own. But it does leave the viewer contemplating how our concepts of the "greater good" seem to conveniently align with our selfish motives.