Irrational Man ***1/2

Coy marketing campaign leads to a great turn of events in Woody Allen’s latest.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Sometimes the less you know about a movie, the better.

The trailer for “Irrational Man” is terrible because it makes the movie look dull and, aside from being writer/director Woody Allen’s latest and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, offers little reason to pay movie theater prices to see it. But there’s a reason it feels uninspired, and this is what also makes the trailer kind of brilliant: It holds back on a major plot development that drives the latter two-thirds of the film, and in doing so allows a plot twist to work with wonderful ingenuity. Ideally the marketing department would’ve found a way to better entice viewers without giving too much away (as far too many trailers do), so it’ll be interesting to see if people give this a chance.

Because the trailers haven’t revealed what it’s really about, nor will I. What you need to know is “Irrational Man” isn’t just a bland story that follows depressed philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Phoenix) and the two women, one a student (Stone) and one a colleague (Parker Posey), who occupy his time while teaching summer school at a Brown-esque university in Rhode Island. There’s much more complexity and morality to it than this, and it’s better because of it.

“Irrational Man” hits on the familiar Allen tropes of existentialism, infidelity, paranoia, and the complexities of love. It’s also very intellectual: If “Midnight In Paris” was Allen’s love letter to literature, this is his love letter to philosophy. However, a key difference is that familiarity with literature greatly improved one’s viewing experience of “Paris,” whereas here the ample philosophical references enhance the film for anyone, regardless of prior knowledge of the field. This is important because the idea of it being a “philosophy movie” could sound intimidating, but Allen uses philosophy to suit his purposes – he doesn’t allow it to drive the ship the way literary figures drove parts of “Paris.”

Is “Irrational Man” funny? At times, yes. But this is more “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point” than it is “Bananas” or “Annie Hall.” Regardless of the type of movie, Allen’s ability to find truth in uncomfortable places has always been one of his best qualities as a writer and director, and he’s in top form here. We’re given Abe’s background and learn of his struggle to save the world and therefore understand why he’d be so disillusioned. We completely get how Stone’s young and ambitious student would be attracted to Abe even though he has so little going for him. It truly is an easy and straightforward narrative, yet it’s also incredibly psychologically complex given the decisions the characters make. The story developments are plausible and feel natural, not forced. What Woody Allen pulls off here is fascinating, and I’m eager to see if it holds up to a second viewing.

After reading this review, do yourself a favor and don’t watch or read anything else about “Irrational Man” until you see the film. You’ll thank me later.

Did you know?
This is Allen’s second consecutive film with Stone after “Magic in the Moonlight” last year.

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