'Irrational Man': The film would be a real slog without Emma Stone

Actor Joaquin Phoenix's performance in the new Woody Allen film is a fuzzy, amorphous piece of work and the film has a breezy insubstantiality.

Sony Pictures Classics
Rita (Parker Posey) and Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) can’t quite connect in ‘Irrational Man.’

Woody Allen’s 45th movie, “Irrational Man,” draws on life-and-death themes he’s already more roundedly dabbled with in such films as “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point.” This is Allen in his serious – or semiserious – mode, where names like Heidegger and Sartre are dropped not comedically but weightily.

Because he works so much – essentially a movie a year since 1969’s “Take the Money and Run” – it’s understandable that Allen would revisit earlier material. In the case of “Irrational Man,” the revisiting, though not without its excellences, is more like a recycling. We are asked to contemplate the random meaninglessness of existence and the ways in which we rationalize our most heinous acts, and all that jazz. It’s Existentialism 101 for Woodman fans.

Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is newly arrived at a prestigious Rhode Island college to teach a summer course in “ethical strategies.” His reputation as a womanizing lush precedes him, but, upon arrival, only the lush part seems accurate. Sodden, cynical, sometimes surly, he mumbles his way through class and backs away from the overt advances of Rita (Parker Posey), an unhappily married chemistry professor with whom he can’t do much more than apologize for his lack of carnal enthusiasm.

Friendless but needing an occasional outlet for his woes, he begins spending platonic time with Jill (Emma Stone), a sharp-eyed student who is smitten by his unreachableness. “He’s a real sufferer,” she proudly tells her exasperated boyfriend (Jamie Blackley). Even when Abe attends a college party and, to everyone’s horror, pulls the trigger in a self-improvised game of Russian roulette, Jill continues to be drawn to him. She’s a real sufferer’s ideal Pygmalion.

For the first third or so of the movie, Abe’s downward spiral is more depressing than arresting. Were it not for Stone’s chipperness as Jill, the film, smoothly directed as it is, would be a real slog. Although we are told that Abe was once a fiery social activist who volunteered in Darfur and post-Katrina New Orleans, it’s difficult to see any vestige of that man in the soggy mess he has become.

Phoenix’s performance carries its depresso force field, but it’s a fuzzy, amorphous piece of work, similar in its more blotto moments to his stoner in “Inherent Vice.” In order for us to really feel for this guy, we need a clearer sense, even for a few brief moments, of how far he has fallen. The way it’s played, he seems always to have been a sad case on the skids.   

Things perk up a bit, both with the movie and with Phoenix, when Abe and Jill accidentally overhear a woman in a diner bemoaning her fate in an upcoming custody hearing involving a corrupt judge. This is where “Irrational Man” strikes a connection with those earlier Allen movies about crime and punishment (or the lack of). Abe, inspired to carry out the perfect crime, is suddenly seized with a reason for being.

Abe’s reclaimed high spirits and potency are, of course, predicated on an abomination, and we anticipate the inevitable foul-ups in his game plan. He may use Heidegger and all those heavy dudes to justify his actions, but we are supposed to know better.

Allen isn’t doing anything terribly deep-dish here, just gussying up the standard crime-movie tropes. To what end? His point, I think, is to demonstrate that human beings, no matter how educated, are capable of justifying the most awful acts. But the film itself has a breezy insubstantiality, and Phoenix never ventures into the deep end of the drowning pool. Grade: B- (Rated R for language and sexual content.)

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