Even the most devoted Woody Allen fan now approaches his new pictures with caution.
Which Woody will we get this time? The classic comedian who blends big laughs with serious themes? Or the dour dramatist who dishes joyless Scandinavian gloom?
“Irrational Man” falls mostly into the latter category. At its most basic level it is, like 2005’s “Match Point,” a murder drama. This time around, though, the satisfactions are relatively few.
Abe (an excellent Joaquin Phoenix) is an academic superstar and a miserable human being. Revered in philosophy circles, he’s a provocative teacher (“Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation”) and a rather seedy alcoholic who carries a hip flask and isn’t afraid to take a swig while trudging across the quadrangle.
Having burned many bridges, Abe shows up for the summer session at a New England college and immediately draws the attention of two dissimilar women — even though he’s obviously a weary depressive with a substantial middle-age gut.
Abe begins an affair with the vaguely pathetic Rita (Parker Posey), a married colleague in the philosophy department. Initially he’s impotent (“I was hoping it would come back as mysteriously as it left”), but Rita sees that as only a slight handicap, reasoning that after her boring husband “it’s interesting to be around someone complicated.”
Meanwhile, Abe launches an intellectual relationship with Jill (Emma Stone), a bright student who clearly idolizes him. Give him points for keeping his relationship with Jill platonic — at least until it isn’t.
At a coffee shop, Abe and Jill overhear a divorced woman telling her friends about the corrupt judge who is prepared to hand over her children to her no-good ex.
Abe, filled with righteous indignation, decides to undertake “a meaningful act” that will eliminate a cancer on society. And after committing what appears to be a perfect crime, he finds he has a whole new enthusiasm for life. He’s born again.
But then Jill starts getting suspicious.
The main selling point of “Irrational Man” is Phoenix. You can’t call Abe likable — in fact, his self-pity-disguised-as-ennui is often insufferable — but Phoenix mines the intellectual arrogance that can lead even a brilliant mind astray.
Unfortunately, Allen has given him big swatches of narration. Always mistrust a movie that insists on telling us instead of showing us.
Stone is fine as the idealistic young thing. Posey is even better as the unhappy wife and teacher who sees the writing on the wall and is hoping for a last chance.
Percolating throughout the film is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” the 19th-century novel about a tormented loser who under the influence of “ideological intoxication” murders a venal pawnbroker, reasoning that smart people have a moral right to excise society’s tumors.
Abe is a big fan of the novel. Though perhaps he hasn’t read it all the way to the end.
There’s a bit of suspense as the threads of Abe’s crime begin to unravel, but the overall tone of “Irrational Man” is cool and unemotional. It’s not awful … just not much.
(At Glenwood Arts, Palace, Town Center.)
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R | Time: 1:36