If 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets is a hot-button account of a controversial, racially tinged, impulsive, real-life murder, Woody Allen’s narrative fiction Irrational Man is potentially even more disturbing. The crime committed by philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is the ultimate in cold-blooded premeditation, reeking of Dostoevsky and Hitchcock.
In its opening scenes, as Abe arrives on the picture-perfect small-college campus with a reputation as a hot-headed womanizer who drinks to excess, the film reminds us of other Allen comedies of manners in which light-hearted romantic games conceal deep wounds. First he’s collared by the campus man-eater, science prof, and dissatisfied wife Rita Richards (former “queen of the indies” Parker Posey), and then subtly snared by one of his students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), a bright and willful faculty daughter trying her hand at amour fou. Abe is even more fou than he appears. Before long we’re in Match Point territory.
Phoenix’s flair for unhinged characters notwithstanding, Stone’s Jill is the most interesting personality on campus, an innocent in a hurry to be worldly, alternately fascinated and repelled by Abe’s wild mood swings. For her, investigating Abe’s brooding soul is like staring into a sulfur pit, dangerous fun for a minute, then thoroughly, permanently repelling. Writer-director Allen’s rare forays into crime scenarios are usually well worth the wait. The mock-playful cat-and-mouse game between Jill and Abe, growing more sinister by the minute, goes directly to the heart of classic film noir. She intends to toy with him harmlessly but realizes too late she’s got a demon by the tail. She’s not prepared for Abe’s “meaningful act” and neither are we. That’s what makes Irrational Man such a clammy summertime delight.
Abe’s Russian roulette scene at the party is solid gold nutso, of course. Phoenix and Allen could fashion a hideous filmography of psychodramas together if they chose to. But who could bear to watch it? Better to drop in on a bit of academic misanthropy that disappears down the rabbit hole than to dwell on the Woodman’s dark side for any length of time — it would probably be more depressing than we’d prefer. In the meantime, Allen’s sharpest screenplay since Blue Jasmine is a shiver-producing work of art.