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Movie review

In ‘Irrational Man,’ Woody Allen goes to school

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone star in “Irrational Man,” the latest film from Woody Allen.
Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone star in “Irrational Man,” the latest film from Woody Allen.(Sabrina Lantos/Gravier Productions Inc./Sony Pictures Classics)

Lately Woody Allen’s movies have been offering an ill-disguised alternative version of his private woes to counter the ugly image of him shared by almost everyone else. The scenario usually involves an older, smarter man, who may be neurotic but is probably a genius, and either an older, neurotic, deceitful woman or a much younger, naive — if not ignorant — and sometimes deceitful ingénue, or both. Read into this what you will, but don’t expect a lot of laughs.

The same holds true for his new film. “Irrational Man” also starts the trademark Allen pointy-headed name-dropping early — it shares its title with William Barrett’s classic book about existentialism. There’s plenty more of this to come, as the film’s protagonist, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix — potbellied, mumbling, and dyspeptic), is a philosophy superstar — brilliant, bibulous, and a babe magnet as he drags his angst across the academic world, never staying anywhere long as his antics quickly eclipse his appeal. Most recently he’s taken up residence at fictitious Braylin College, in Newport, R.I., where, as one female prof puts it, he should put some Viagra back into the department.

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Alas, Abe has found that teaching and writing about futility is itself futile. He’s lost his raison d’etre, not to mention his mojo — as passion-starved, age-appropriate chemistry professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey) learns to her dismay.

Bereft, Abe opens his heart and mind to bright and fresh-faced student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone, bringing nuance and depth to a cipher). Being a strict if unconventional moralist, Abe discourages Jill when she throws herself at him with increasing ardor. He knows it would do her no good, especially since his Dasein has lost its Gelassenheit.

Then, in a flash of inspiration derived from “Crime and Punishment,” “The Stranger,” “Strangers on a Train” and Allen’s own “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point,” Abe comes up with a plan to restore his joie de vivre. But one has to wonder if this is such a good idea. Wasn’t his mopiness what turned women on in the first place?

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Good question. Allen, though, seems more interested in demonstrating how a genius is misunderstood and unfairly judged by the standards of petty moralists. His case is not helped by the use of that lazy expository tool — a prolix, perfunctory voice-over. Actually two voice-overs — both Abe and Jill contributing their versions of the story, a duplication of effort that fails to illuminate and is, in retrospect, preposterous. Even Allen’s outstanding cinematographer, Darius Khondji, can’t deliver a spark; his drab Newport might just as well be Newport News.

In the end, this feeble effort remains tainted, however unfairly, by the creator’s personal life. Maybe Allen should have titled it “Rationalizing Man.”


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.