Woody Allen brings a light touch to weighty matters in ‘Irrational Man’

Master debaters: Stone and Phoenix contemplate philosophical questions.

Three stars

Irrational Man Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey. Directed by Woody Allen. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Woody Allen does himself no favors by continuing to make movies that feature romantic relationships between middle-aged men and much younger women. Last year’s Magic in the Moonlight, about a magician attempting to expose an alleged clairvoyant, fell apart when Allen insisted on pairing up the two main characters, played by 54-year-old Colin Firth and 26-year-old Emma Stone. Now Stone is back in Allen’s Irrational Man, again batting her huge eyes at someone (Joaquin Phoenix) who could technically be her dad. This time, however, the trajectory is reversed, as the film feints at being a May-December romance before taking an unexpected swerve into one of Allen’s other pet themes (previously explored in films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point): murder, moral relativism and the vagaries of fate.

Set on the campus of a fictional East Coast university, Irrational Man stars Phoenix (sporting an impressive beer belly) as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor as renowned for his skirt-chasing tendencies as for his academic achievements. Newly arrived at the college, Abe is pursued both by Stone’s Jill, one of his students, and by a fellow teacher, Rita (Parker Posey), who’s actually age-appropriate. Problem is, Abe’s mounting conviction that life is fundamentally meaningless has rendered him impotent. When he and Jill accidentally overhear a conversation about a corrupt judge, Abe abruptly decides that the man needs to be killed, and begins plotting the perfect murder. He confides in no one, but when the deed is done, his renewed enthusiasm for living—along with the resurgence of his sex drive—makes first Rita and then Jill deeply suspicious. Of course, once you’ve rationalized one murder, rationalizing a second is easy.

Because it’s set in academia, Irrational Man is one of those slightly exasperating Allen pictures in which the dialogue amounts to endless variations on “I’m well aware of what Kierkegaard said.” (It’s also one of those Allen pictures in which contemporary young women coo things like “I love making love with you.”) Once the plot finally kicks in, however (following about 45 minutes of laborious setup), the film is a lot of fun, as Abe struggles to conceal evidence of his crime while simultaneously feeling suddenly invincible. Allen’s dialogue has lost much of its zing as he’s gotten older, but his skill at casually planting elements that will pay off later hasn’t diminished in the slightest; the climactic, ironic twist here is arguably even better than the one that concludes Match Point, with an extra element of droll randomness. It makes for lightly diverting, turn-off-your-brain late-summer fare, all the Kant and Heidegger references notwithstanding.

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