“I couldn’t resist doing a crazy thing.” In Woody Allen’s new movie Irrational Man, a depressed college professor named Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) finds a new sense of purpose while planning and executing what he considers a perfect murder. It’s nothing Allen hasn’t done before or better, and, as is often the case with the prolific writer-director’s later work, he seems out his depth when it comes to the milieu, in this case New England academia. (To be fair, Allen’s New York was never all that real either, but at least it was animated by a personal vision of how people should live and talk, rather than vague ideas about how they do.) Despite tastes that skew highbrow, Allen has never been very credible at writing intellectual dialogue, except in parody; his characters all sound like they’re reading Dostoevsky for class. But though Irrational Man’s existentialist moral crisis is mostly hokum, the movie still has a whiff of charm, thanks to a handful of good one-liners, a little misdirection, and Phoenix’s off-kilter performance, which completely ignores the rhythm of Allen’s speech in favor of naturalistic mojo.
Abe—one of those smart guys who is incessantly described as brilliant by supporting characters, mostly women—arrives at fictional Braylin College alcoholic and effectively impotent, and then proceeds to become an object of fascination for students and assorted lonely faculty members. (“He’s done every drug,” says one. “He hates them.”) The funny thing is that, despite the tell-don’t-show-isms that tend to undermine Allen’s late-period writing, Abe is actually quite endearing as a presence. If Owen Wilson’s turn in Midnight In Paris is the go-to example of an actor making Allen’s comic patter sound like his own, then Phoenix’s performance here—which involves a lot of loud nose-breathing—is an object lesson in how a star can disrupt his own movie, sometimes for the better. This, of course, is all relative to the relaxed standards of post-peak Woody Allen, where damn near everything feels like a first-draft script acted by a cast that has been given zero direction.
Said cast, smaller and less disorganized than usual, puts Abe between two women: married colleague Rita Richards (Parker Posey), who dreams of ditching her husband and running away to Spain, and undergrad Jill (Emma Stone, acting in a different movie), who becomes Abe’s de facto intellectual and personal confidante on campus and unwittingly inspires his murder plot. She is also the movie’s co-narrator, alternating voice-overs with Abe. Irrational Man—which takes its title from William Barrett’s once-popular introductory text on existentialist philosophy—is at its most interesting (or at least its most consistent) in its off-beat middle stretch, which finds our pot-bellied anti-hero newly energized by a secret scheme to murder a total stranger in broad daylight. It is, basically, a one-joke premise: If happiness is a question of personal purpose, then what could make a person happier than a plot to kill? Everybody tells Abe how much better he’s been looking lately, and all he thinks about are the exotic poisons he could steal from the chemistry department.
Part of the problem of writing or talking about later Woody Allen is that one can’t resist the urge to point out all the Allen-isms, and probably shouldn’t. So here, again, is a repeated piece of music (Ramsey Lewis Trio doing “The ‘In’ Crowd”) that seems to tighten around the movie, and that now-familiar philosophy of life that probably wouldn’t seem so tired if one ever got the sense that it was being developed, instead of simply re-circulating for decades. “The same old” is Allen’s default mode, and here it trucks along to a modest insight and an arbitrary twist-of-fate ending. But at least there are a few bumps along the way—courtesy of Phoenix and a sly Chekhov’s-gun tease—and, as always, some pretty lighting by the great Darius Khondji.