Cannes: Irrational Man review

Unless Woody Allen is to live until a very old age indeed, he must currently be in the later part of his career as a filmmaker. Even still, he’s just premiered one of the most youthful and sprightly pictures of his entire body of work.

Irrational Man is a highly entertaining thriller with laughs, or perhaps even a comedy with thrills. The story centres on a fictional college in Newport and two romances that unfold on its campus. The first is between Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) and a fellow lecturer, Rita (Parker Posey), and the second is between Abe and a student, Jill (Emma Stone).

And then there’s a murder mystery, which brings with it a number of moral questions and a lot of self-examination.

Abe begins the film as a laconic, boozing philosophy lecturer who sees no point to life and even plays actual, real Russian Roulette just because he can. But after making one particular, and rather surprising decision, he suddenly feels free and able to enjoy life.

Allen paints in his broadest strokes when it comes to Abe’s moods. We see him knocking back whisky in the early scenes and then later riding a bike with carefree abandon, but the character’s trajectory is still fascinating and Phoenix plays the part beautifully. He’s utterly convincing as both the slobby drunk professor and the energetic guy without a worry in the world. Phoenix has often proven himself a remarkable physical performer, and here again uses his whole body to create this character, and help elaborate on both mood and motivations.

Stone also proves herself to be one of the film’s treasures, breathing far more life into the role of Jill than you might expect from her appearance in Allen’s underwhelming and decidedly patchy period picture, Magic in Moonlight. That time, she was given far too many goofy scenes and not enough substance, but this time, Allen has written a much rounder role, something in keeping with the more interesting ingenues we’ve met in his work.

Indeed, Irrational Man is filled with familiar Allen tropes, which isn’t surprising. It’s only the idea of a young girl constantly pushing to sleep with an older man that left me wishing he could move on. Elsewhere, there are elements in common with Crimes and Misdemeanours, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Match Point, and Allen manages to adeptly balance intellectual concepts with comedy the way he so often used to do so well.

Comparing any modern writer to the greats of Russian literature doesn’t seem like fair a game but Allen really does have the wit to ensure he wouldn’t be embarrassed by such a juxtaposition. Black comedy and philosophical ideas have often worked beautifully together, and Irrational Man stands as another grand romance between the two.

This film certainly engages the audience on an intellectual level, asking for them to constantly consider the reality of philosophical ideas, but at the same time, Allen provides so much light and breezy comedy that this never feels like hard work. And, importantly, the humour in the script never distracts from the ideas, but simply makes them easier to grapple with.

Even when the film begins picks up pace and rushes towards a thrillingly electric climax with help of some silly plot contrivances, these conveniences are and conceits superbly cushioned by jokes.

So, a character finds an obvious admission of guilt in a copy of Crimes and Punishment, providing a daft resolution to an ongoing plot thread. Because there’s such a big laugh, however, the beat plays well. This is smart stuff, and a fine example of what Allen does best.

I long since gave up on Allen’s films hitting the heights of Annie Hall or Manhattan, but Irrational Man confirms that he still knows what a masterpiece looks like, even if this is the closest he’s come to creating one in some time.