** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Woody Allen
STARS Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone
Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
If someone close to you murdered an utterly evil person who possessed no redeeming qualities whatsoever — someone like, say, Rupert Murdoch or Dick Cheney or Rush Limbaugh — and you were the only person who could send them to jail, would you keep quiet, knowing that they probably did the right thing even if it went against all notions of justice and morality, or would you speak up, deciding that the law must be upheld at all costs? It's a great philosophical query, the sort that could spark lengthy conversations among friends deep into the night.
It's a sharp hook for a motion picture as well, provided the movie manages to rise above the level of merely coming across as a didactic rant. Unfortunately, Woody Allen's Irrational Man rarely feels like anything more than a college-level term project — perhaps appropriately, given its scholastic setting. Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a professor who derives absolutely no pleasure out of life. Yet despite his morose attitude and sizable pot belly, he proves to be Irresistible Man to the ladies, since Allen films generally maintain that all women will perennially be attracted to a massive, throbbing ... brain. In Abe's case, he manages to attract both a faculty member — the unhappily married Rita (Parker Posey), whose husband rates about as much screen time as Third Roman Soldier From The Left in Ben-Hur — and a student — Jill (Emma Stone), who has a boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) but prefers spending time with her angst-ridden instructor. Despite the advances of both women, Abe is rendered impotent by his existential agonizing, a condition that only changes once he and Jill overhear strangers at a diner discussing a heinous judge overseeing a child custody case. Suddenly, Abe feels that only by committing a perfect murder of an abhorrent individual — and by getting away with it — will he be able to fully enjoy life again.
Despite what the naysayers might think, there's no shame in Allen playing variations on old notes — everyone from Hitchcock to Hawks has done exactly that, finding new ways to explore themes they've already dissected. The disappointment only comes in not being able to add anything new to the conversation. Just as Brian De Palma ably mined thriller beats until his tires ran bald with Raising Cain, Allen successfully tackled crime conundrums (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point) until he made this picture. (I'm not including his justly forgotten Cassandra's Dream because it was too straightforward to offer any talking points.) Irrational Man becomes a one-sided conversation because Abe is the only one offered any complexity (and Phoenix is quite good in the role). Jill and Rita function as nothing more than soundboards, with the actresses' committed performances no match for the thinness of the parts. As recently as 2013, Allen has shown that he's still capable of writing wonderful female characters (see: Blue Jasmine; Cate Blanchett; Best Actress Oscar), so it's disheartening to see Stone and Posey reduced to playing women so ill-defined.
Even with dialogue that's often clunky, some moviegoers will want to see this just to watch adults engage in conversations concerning the likes of Dostoyevsky, Heidegger and Kant — it's the sort of chat one won't find in something like Pixels, for example. It's just too bad the film represents one of Allen's lesser efforts as a ventriloquist. We see the performers' mouths moving, but all we hear is Allen venting from atop the stool.