“Irrational Man” feels like a largely realized game of Clue. With classic old Hollywood rhythm, implausibly charming design and characters so precisely overdrawn and focused it’s impossible to take them seriously, the simple story of refined-misanthropy-turned-murder-mystery dials the classic board game into the present day.
The story's opening is almost painfully predictably; a tortured, mysterious philosophy professor, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”) takes up residence at the most well decorated college that never existed. As the title suggests, the film revolves completely around his character, but not only is the plot about his life, it stems wholly from the supporting characters’ obsessions with his vague, disenchanted persona. Nothing can soothe his complete desolation, not the single malt scotch brought over by his colleague’s eager and willing wife, nor the companionship and advances of a sharp and springy young student, Jill (Emma Stone, “Birdman”). It’s not until overhearing an anonymous woman’s troubles with a crooked custody judge that his zest for life is realized, as he decides that killing the judge would give his existence some purpose. This is when the film, too, starts to get interesting.
The plot steers dangerously close to the overplayed, older man and innocent girl, I-was-lost-until-I-found-love, your-youth-has-brought-me-to-life, territory that Woody Allen is somewhat infamous for. But at the final crucial moment, it swerves, the professor regaining his zeal not through an inappropriate affair, but something notably darker, the murder of a stranger. A collective sigh of relief rises in the theater as he turns away from his young counterpart and instead falls headfirst into poison research and the careful stalking of, and a relieved laugh bounces through the audience at her consistent, naïve belief in his innocence.
After the unenthusiastic flop that came of Woody Allen’s recent “Magic in the Moonlight,” with the premise of pessimistic skeptic Colin Firth finding meaning in a young mystic’s love wavering dangerously close to that of “Irrational Man,” Emma Stone’s involvement in the film initially seemed to be a mistake, or at least a calculatedly risky move. However, “Irrational Man” 's shift in focus from love to murder allows her to stand not as a static object of desire but instead provides her with a strange and unique role, demonstrating her versatility as an actress. Her character is so overly devoted, with lines like “he was so damn fascinating and vulnerable, I must say I found him attractive,” or even “I love when you order dinner for me,” that she becomes distanced from the audience, standing as a near ridiculous caricature instead of forcing the viewer to try and identify.
But the most important aspect of her strange and obsessive character is Jill’s sheer survival through the film’s story. When Abe tries to murder her after she realizes that he is the judge’s poisoner, he is the one who ends up dying, tripping on a flashlight he won for her at a carnival and falling to his death down an empty elevator shaft intended for her. If her character did at points become somewhat repetitive and stereotypical, there’s no denying that when the credits roll, she is peacefully alive walking along the beach while he is long dead.
While the film is satisfying, it’s a little tough to judge how much of it is intentionally ridiculous and how much is a flailing attempt at intellectualism and depth. While the played out love story Allen has become recognized for is, somewhat, avoided, the elements of this 'older man with irresistible student' plot is still recognized and indulged. The direction and design of the film are undeniably seamless, it takes a bit of convincing to fully write off “Irrational Man”'s somewhat disconcerting premise and its execution as thoughtful and self-critical. Inadvertently similar to what Jill’s father says of Abe’s lofty philosophical writings, “Irrational Man” is a “triumph of style,” but it could be that “the substance doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”
Oh, and just for good measure: the philosophy professor, in the park, with cyanide.