In the opening frames of Irrational Man, we see Joaquin Phoenix as a whiskey-soaked professor Abe Lucas—his flask is rarely out of reach—weaving his own id through Franz Kafka's theories of morality and murder. A few moments later, we hear Emma Stone as Jill, a naive college student. In a less-than-poetic narrative, she says of the malcontented Lucas, "I think he was crazy from the beginning." Deep into the film, we hear Lucas again: "I'm Abe Lucas; and I have murdered." Therein lies the quite typical frame of Irrational Man, an atypical dramatic achievement from writer/director Woody Allen. Allen has been down this road before, but he has rarely been better, and he has Joaquin Phoenix to thank. It is in Phoenix's performance that Irrational Man exudes a tension and authenticity making this Allen's best full-on drama since 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Allen has danced with death on the big screen on multiple occasions, but he had nearly worn out his dance card when it came to hackneyed plots of the "perfect murder" in multiple flops and near-misses: Cassandra's Dream, Match Point, Scoop and the ever-dreadful Manhattan Murder Mystery. In Irrational Man—primarily due to Phoenix's performance—Allen has finally found the perfect companion piece to Crimes and Misdemeanors, which so aptly considered the immorality of taking a fellow human's life.
One of the best things I can say about Irrational Man is that this murder mystery really isn't much of a mystery at all. Allen's economical script is built on a sober, through-line narrative in which the audience knows exactly where it's heading: Cold-blooded murder (thus, the film's R rating). To that end, I found Allen's story similar to a classic episode of the 1970's TV series Columbo, where the viewers identify the murderer and the crime at the outset, but spend the next 90 minutes unraveling what at first appears to be a perfect murder until some element of imperfection is ultimately revealed.
Unfortunately, Joaquin Phoenix is saddled with carrying a bit too much of the water when it comes to the acting in Irrational Man. He's opposite an embarrassing (and perhaps irrational) miscasting of Emma Stone as a college co-ed and Lucas' paramour. Stone nearly mucks up the entire proceedings and is apparently the latest in Allen's infatuation with casting young actresses as fictional nymphs—and his apparent obsession has nearly derailed his filmmaking once again. There isn't a single frame in this film in which Stone comes across as a believable, and I'm afraid she's dangerously close to living in James Franco-land, a place where they don't say no to many film projects. Memo to Emma Stone: Sit some out. You're a fine actress, but please be patient. Wait for the appropriate roles and, for goodness sakes, stop saying "yes" to every project.
On a positive note, kudos for the superb use of the Ramsey Lewis Trio's classic 1965 recording of "The In Crowd" as the foundation of Irrational Man's soundtrack. It swings and sways when necessary and even occasionally tightens the proceedings, almost like a noose. It's Allen's best use of music since his Gershwin-themed 1979 opus, Manhattan.
For the record, I'm a huge fan of Phoenix and can even excuse some of his odd career choices. In fact, there are times when I think he channels his acting skills from another era. Many of his performances have more in common with Montgomery Clift, James Dean or even a young Marlon Brando. In Irrational Man, it's no mystery he's one of the best of his generation. Because of his performance alone, Irrational Man is already one of my favorites of the year.