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Review: ‘Irrational Man’ is a chamber piece rather than a masterpiece

Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix star in “Irrational Man.”
Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix star in “Irrational Man.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

If you’ve made a film a year like clockwork for half a century, earning more directing and writing Oscar nominations than any other filmmaker, you’ve reached a special level of triumph.

Not every single project needs to be a stroke of genius. Woody Allen’s latest, the Ivory Tower romantic mystery “Irrational Man,” is a chamber piece rather than a masterpiece. Echoing the bleak tone of his 2013 stunner “Blue Jasmine,” it begins with a character’s impotent frustration with life’s unfairness, and climbs to the corrosive consequences of trying to reverse them. It’s a welcome alternative to the bloated, big-budget fantasias currently crowding screens. It’s a matter of dark commentary, not escapism. While it doesn’t quite succeed, it’s a mournful meditation too sharp and smart to dislike.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a professor who drives to his new East Coast teaching appointment derailed by neurosis. He is a philosopher of sizable reputation, a respected expert on “ethical strategies” and a renowned womanizer. At least that’s the man his new co-workers expect. One of his academic colleagues predicts that his arrival “should put some Viagra into the philosophy department.”

The jazz-funk snap of the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s ’60s hit “The In Crowd” has scarcely faded from the opening when we learn that the visiting moralist is drowning in existential angst. “I couldn’t remember the reason for living,” mutters the listless, pudgy Abe. “And when I did, it wasn’t convincing.”

A former activist for justice in Darfur and assistance to New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina, he now teaches Kant and Kierkegaard with the sad conviction that society’s crimes rarely receive punishment.

Still, his reputation convinces unhappily married chemistry professor Rita Richards (a very touching Parker Posey) that they must mix elements together. The heartsick Abe hardly knows what to do for the woman who has fallen into bed with him, especially since she believes they could elope to Europe and begin new lives together.

Abe’s outstanding, naive student Jill Pollard (the ever-glowing Emma Stone) finds him irresistible, too. “He’s a real sufferer,” she raves to her annoyed boyfriend (Jamie Blackley). Soon she’s pursuing a connection that Abe keeps platonic, at first. His tragic pain draws her to him – even when Abe joins a student party’s joking game of Russian roulette and, to everyone’s shock, pulls the trigger at his temple. Phoenix’s method acting commitment is so convincing it’s easy to believe the revolver really had a bullet.

Stories about dissatisfied men and quirky young women are catnip to Allen. He made Stone fall in love with the equally pontificating and even more mature Colin Firth in last year’s “Magic in the Moonlight.” Here, however, the stakes are much higher. On a lunch date with Jill, Abe overhears a conversation that could make him feel much more alive, so long as he secretly does something unforgivable. Phoenix, who excelled as appalling characters in “Gladiator,” “The Master” and “The Immigrant,” quietly turns his Rhode Island location into a place of mean streets, his emotional wear and tear giving way to a thrill of bullish exhilaration.

Review

‘Irrational Man’

1/2

Rated: R for language and sexual content

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey

Written and directed by: Woody Allen

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