Woody Allen’s films benefit from exceptional casting. Occasionally Allen might get carried away with a certain actress for a few films, and while he usually has a good eye for actors, sometimes he prioritizes the actress over the character (Scoop is one that I’m thinking of with its use of Scarlett Johansson).
In Irrational Man Emma Stone shows up again, having just been in his previous film Magic in the Moonlight. She’s great as a college student named Jill who becomes infatuated with a professor named Abe Lucas. Now Abe is played by Joaquin Phoenix, and Phoenix is able to get us to feel a range of emotions towards him.
I think ever since I’m Still Here (2010) and the lead up to that film, in which Phoenix appeared to go off the deep end, he has had this troubling aura around him, and Woody uses that to help bring the character of Abe to life.
Abe arrives in a small college town as a new philosophy professor. He brings with him a heavy reputation as a womanizer, a drunk and a man of worldly experience. He’s famous within the philosophy circle. His reputation is essentially the same one Phoenix had right after I’m Still Here. Some people were enraptured with him and some loathed him.
The film begins with dueling voice over, showing both Abe’s and Jill’s perspectives, but at the beginning it’s Abe’s movie. We’re introduced to his new life as he is introduced to it, and we empathize with him from a safe distance. Abe is deeply troubled, but he’s intelligent and kind, mostly keeping to himself. It’s tough not to root for a character like that. He’s like a sick puppy.
Jill falls for him too, and she seems reasonable. So it’s as if her attraction to him helps us justify rooting for him. Even more importantly, he rejects her at first because he doesn’t think it’s right for them to be together (since he’s a professor and because she’s already dating someone else). So despite Abe’s troubles, he appears to have a good head on his shoulder.
While at a diner one afternoon, Abe and Jill overhear a family discussing a custody battle in which the wife is likely to lose custody of her children because her ex-husband and his lawyer are in good standing with the judge. It doesn’t seem fair.
Abe begins to obsess over this and decides he should kill the judge to help this woman out, and since he’s a complete stranger, he won’t be caught. In other words it will be the perfect crime. After making this decision, Abe begins to embrace life. He feels that he now has a purpose, and he’s suddenly a new man. He stops drinking from the flash in broad daylight and slurring his words. He becomes a younger, more energetic person.
Jill continues to push herself on him, and he eventually relents. They develop a relationship, going to movies, meeting her parents and one night going to a fair in which he wins a game for her, and she selects a flashlight as the prize. It’s a small moment, and Abe tells her she’s too practical.
Around the midway point of the film, Abe successfully poisons the judge. It happens surprisingly quickly and with ease. Abe learns his routine, then he steals a badge from another professor named Rita (Parker Posey) with whom he had a brief affair. Using the badge to get into the science lab after hours, Abe steals a little cyanide. He then mixes it with orange juice and swaps it out with the judge’s orange juice. The judge later appears to have a heart attack.
The story spreads around the community once people learn through an autopsy that the judge was murdered. At dinner one night with Jill’s parents, Jill and Abe speculate on how the murder could have been conducted, and Jill pretty much nails it on the head as she realizes how it was done (without realizing that she’s correct).
Abe begins to reveal himself when he says it was cyanide before that information was made public. Then she overheard Rita’s crackpot theory that Abe did it because he often wondered what it would be like to commit murder and she knows her badge went missing around that time. Finally, Jill sneaks into Abe’s house, unable to let go of her suspicions. She finds a copy of Crime and Punishment that he has marked up and written the judge’s name in.
Jill confronts him, claiming to know that he killed the judge, and Abe admits it. Jill breaks off their relationship but says she won’t turn him in, though she is undeniably troubled by what has transpired. Then, in a twist, another man is arrested for the murder. Jill tells Abe he has to turn himself in or else she will.
Abe then resolves to kill her by turning off an elevator so he can push her down the elevator shaft. When he tries to push her down, however, he has a hard time of it, and in the scuffle he slips on the flashlight she picked earlier and falls down the shaft to his death.
So I mentioned how we are meant to have some empathy for Abe, but after he commits the murder, the story more and more begins to belong to Jill. As she investigates Abe, he becomes more alien to her and to the story. At a certain point we hardly see him, and when she sees him he starts to feel like a monster. When Jill interacts with him she is much more frightened, and Abe starts to feel more unpredictable.
When Abe resolved to kill the judge, we were so in his head that, while it didn’t make sense morally, we at least understood his logic and were more likely to side with him like we constantly do with anti-heroes. But once we left his headspace, he became less likable.
At the end we’re back in his headspace as he concocts his plan to kill Jill, but we’re not rooting for him. At this point the story feels like a dark comedy (where there wasn’t too much humor beforehand), and you can’t really believe what you’re watching. Abe’s logic makes sense if his goal is self-preservation (which it is), but it escalates so quickly that it’s kind of funny. It’s this philosophy professor who constantly writes and talks about logic and morality, and suddenly he’s scrambling to murder a college student to cover up for his own mistakes. It’s all a bit silly and entertaining to watch.
It’s like the movie starts out as a much more grounded Allen film, something like Blue Jasmine (of his recent works), but by the end it’s much more farcical. It’s a story with realistic characters thrown into increasingly absurd situations, like a melodrama I suppose.