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Love and death in Rhode Island 

Woody Allen returns to the Russian novel.

'IRRATIONAL MAN': Parker Posey and Joaquin Phoenix star.
  • 'IRRATIONAL MAN': Parker Posey and Joaquin Phoenix star.

Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) has had a tough life. His wife has left him. His mother poisoned herself when he was 12. His best friend was a casualty of the Iraq War, the victim of a landmine or, some say, a beheading. These details and others have received a wide airing in the academic world, where Abe is a star philosophy professor and a new hire at a sleepy Rhode Island college. He promises, as one faculty member phrases it, to "put some Viagra" into the department. But the excitement the campus feels for Abe's arrival is balanced by Abe's own lack of it. Beset by writer's block as he attempts to tackle Heidegger and fascism, openly slugging from a flask as he walks across campus, unable to please any of his would-be sexual partners, Abe is a man in crisis.

Such is the setup for "Irrational Man," Woody Allen's latest, which takes aim at the age-old struggle between thought and action. Abe is a thinker, not a doer — one wracked by a perception of life's meaninglessness. The question throughout the film is whether and how Abe will escape this torpor. Love is a ready outlet. Will he choose Rita (Parker Posey), a chemistry professor with similar existential issues and an equally robust thirst for booze? Or will he go for Jill (Emma Stone), his eager student? The outcome is patently obvious from the early going. The film's real driving tension is not these romantic doings. Rather, it is whether Abe will spring into motion in some other way.

A potential vehicle emerges in the form of a divorced woman who is fighting for custody of her children. The judge in the case, who seems to favor the ex-husband's side, is a pretty rotten guy. He has been "censured several times" but, implausibly, "never reversed on appeal."

That was probably the only line that gave me an audible rise. Some other halfhearted one-liners aside, Allen is not really aiming for humor here. Rather, the film develops into an allusion to "Crime and Punishment," a book by an author who, unlike Allen, does not have a reputation as a funnyman. Allen has played the Russian novelists to light effect in the past, but this time he opts to go heavy. Abe could probably do a lot of things to help the divorced woman. Putting an ax through the judge's head — or a more subtle and cinematic version of that — is perhaps not the most rational. But that's the thought that enters Abe's mind. Will he or won't he? What are the moral implications? And can he get away with it if he does?

The film aims high but ultimately can't reach those lofty ambitions. Its dialogue too often falls flat. (Perhaps your typical undergrad really does profess to her middle-aged paramour to "love it when you order for me," but such lines are better left on the cutting-room floor.) Rather than developing the characters, the script relies excessively on character voiceovers — a technique that's a bit more effective with Abe, since most of the intrigue revolves around the activity in his brain. The women are primarily foils for Abe and nods to the obligatory romantic plotline. And Allen has a supremely strange vision of campus life, though I suppose there might be a college somewhere at which professors eat in the cafeteria and neck with their students in front of the academic buildings.

Phoenix is superb, though, with his expanded paunch and his detached air. The character is of a piece with his recent portrayals of madmen and outsiders — I'm thinking of his turns in "The Master," "Her" and "Inherent Vice." Anyone compelled by those performances shouldn't miss this one. And with a twist ending, the film redeems some of its flaws. In a nutshell, this is pretty standard late-period Allen. Much of that hasn’t risen to the level of what you’d call great cinema (putting aside contenders such as "Blue Jasmine" and the work that is perhaps closest in tone to this film, "Match Point"). But Allen seems more interested in making movies than in making perfect movies. Sounds pretty rational to me.

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