Woody Allen's 'Irrational' new film

Director's latest release feels like a rehashing of characters and narratives from past projects

Thursday July 30, 2015 04:00 am EDT

In its compelling opening scenes, Woody Allen's new film Irrational Man seems to be going the Blue Jasmine route. We settle in for an absorbing story of a flawed character in crisis. In Jasmine, it was Cate Blanchett as the mentally fragile, fallen New York socialite Jasmine arriving on her sister's doorstep. In Irrational Man, we have Joaquin Phoenix as Abe, a brilliant but profoundly burned-out philosophy professor arriving in a small college town to start work as a visiting professor.

Inexpressive, joyless despair isn't an easy thing to make appealing — or even interesting — on screen, but Phoenix gives the existentially depressed character a quiet, soulful uneasiness, a weird halo of alienation that's compellingly recognizable. The aging Abe and his melancholy prove irresistibly attractive (What'd you expect? It's a Woody Allen film.) to both his young student Jill (Emma Stone) and to his sexed-up colleague in the chemistry department, Rita (Parker Posey), who begin positioning themselves to gain his attention.

The whole thing picks up even more narrative energy when the lethargic Abe decides to take action by murdering a stranger, a powerful someone who makes life miserable for others. Allen is brilliant with his use of music, and here the recurring use of Billy Page's jazz classic "The In Crowd" gives the planning and enacting scenes a jolt of jaunty energy and lively sense of purpose.

After spurring himself into action, Abe undergoes a transformation, experiencing a renewed interest in life and all it has to offer. It's a comic-strip simple turn of events for a well-rounded character, and even more disappointing is that the narrative likewise begins to utilize a well-worn, conventional sort of suspense: Will he be caught or won't he? We find we were more interested in Abe depressed and ordinary than we are in him chipper and hiding a secret. Worst of all is the ridiculously unbelievable ending, one that makes the whole endeavor feel like a feather-light retelling of Allen's much better 2005 tale of murder and the vagaries of chance, Match Point. Irrational Man is also narrated by Stone's character (it's something that's easy to forget as it's a conceit that fades in and out), so we're unfortunately left at the end with that character's bland, unrevealing reflections about Abe's fate.

It's become a matter of course to expect that Allen will revisit some of the themes and situations from his earlier work in new films. Though it initially seems to be staking out some new territory with an interesting actor depicting a compelling character à la Blue Jasmine, in the end, Irrational Man retreads too much familiar ground. If you've seen Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, you've already seen Irrational Man, only better. (2 out of 5 stars)

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