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With: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: R for some language and sexual content
Running Time: 96
Date: 07/24/2015

Irrational Man (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Thirty-eight years ago, Woody Allen made Annie Hall (1977), a much-loved Oscar winner starring himself and Diane Keaton, whom some might argue was his all-time best leading lady. A year later, he made Interiors (1978), his first "serious" effort, also starring Keaton. It received some polite acclaim, but today it's probably not on anyone's list of favorite Allen pictures. Last year, Allen made the comedy Magic in the Moonlight, starring Emma Stone, and in my review, I compared her to Keaton; she's the first in a long line of leading ladies that has Keaton's spunk. Now, as if repeating history, Allen has cast her a second time, and in one of his "serious" movies, Irrational Man. I'd say the effect is probably the same; it's well made and worthy of polite applause, but probably won't be watched too many more times.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the rumpled philosophy professor Abe Lucas, who gets a job at the fictitious Braylin college, despite the fact that he's a known drinker and womanizer (though, in fact, he's currently impotent). Though Phoenix is not at his most appealing here, he manages to sell the idea of this intellectual as a mysterious and unattainable sex symbol. Student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) becomes fascinated with him, and despite her assurances to her preppy boyfriend, she falls in love with Abe. They spend a good portion of the film as friends, hanging out together, and it's during one of their outings that the film's thesis kicks in.

The couple overhears a conversation in a diner; a woman is about to lose her kids to a no-good ex-husband, thanks to a crooked judge. It becomes painfully clear that if something were to happen to the judge, then the woman would have a fighting chance. Abe begins pondering the existential concept of killing the judge himself, and having no connection to the crime. As he digs deeper, he finds his zest for life returning. I won't say what happens next, but if you've seen a few murder stories, you can probably piece it together.

Irrational Man is probably closest to Allen's English crime films, Match Point (2005) and the underrated Cassandra's Dream (2007), but it lacks their potent nerve. Instead, everything is once removed by the movie's intellectual analysis, as well as deflecting it with the sexual tension of the illicit relationship.

But Allen moves the story slow enough that its construction feels like it might have some weight. Allen's dialogue is as smart as ever (even if not as funny), and the actors — including Parker Posey as a married faculty member who also tries to seduce Abe — help root the story. Ms. Stone is probably the high point once again; it's her breathless fascination with Abe that makes him seem fascinating.

Allen seems, despite a few recent "comebacks" — Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011), and Blue Jasmine (2013) — to have fallen from favor, probably not aided by certain news items. But, all in all, he's still one of our best living writer/directors, and in a perfect world, he will cast Emma Stone a third time and bring us something akin to Manhattan (1979). We can always hope.

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