Joaquin Phoenix has grown an unsettlingly prodigious potbelly for his role in “Irrational Man,” in which Woody Allen revisits the terrain of his 2005 murder mystery “Match Point,” with more conclusive, if less memorable, results. Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dissolute philosophy professor as known for his affairs with students as for his erudite theorizing when he arrives for the summer term at a small liberal arts college in Rhode Island.
Depressed, blocked, sexually stymied, Abe drinks from a perpetually topped-off flask and pontificates on Kant and Kierkegaard, emitting a frequency that only women addicted to lost causes can hear. Almost immediately upon his arrival, he’s pounced on by a flirtatious science professor (a delightfully blowsy Parker Posey) and becomes the crush — unrequited, at least for a little while — of one of his students, a coltish, earnestly precocious senior named Jill (Emma Stone). When Abe comes up with a scheme to jar himself out of his psychic stasis — one that involves a local judge and an act of decisive, even fatal, comeuppance — “Irrational Man” starts to engage themes and cinematic gestures that should be familiar to Allen’s fans: the vagaries of chance, the power of conscience, the subtleties of situational ethics and the fine mechanics of the murder caper at its most craftily Hitchcockian.
Filmed in and around Newport, “Irrational Man” exudes the handsome good taste that viewers have come to associate with Allen’s films. Shot in a rich, buttery color palette by Darius Khondji, it’s an indulgent pleasure to watch, from Abe’s cozy, well-appointed faculty rental to the floaty cotton frocks Stone wears with heedless come-hither elan. Of a piece with Allen’s past work, “Irrational Man” is drenched in prosperity and ethnic homogeneity. Its world is comfortable, self-absorbed, insular and as white as a pair of post-Memorial Day pumps.
“Irrational Man” isn’t a comedy. There are, however, moments that invite rueful chuckles of recognition, especially when Posey’s character is giving Abe the business. She strikes a welcome madcap note in what is otherwise a series of bland medium shots of people talking. (The static, episodic structure gains swinging momentum by way of Ramsey Lewis’s classic 1965 album “The In Crowd,” which Allen uses liberally throughout the film.)
What people are saying in those back-and-forth vignettes is meant to sound smart, but isn’t, really. That “Irrational Man” is a sophomoric simulacrum of intellectual discourse reflects the self-deception at the movie’s core. Abe’s agonizing over existential despair and the futility of life sound like the bleatings of a spoiled, self-pitying narcissist. Jill, who develops the habit of starting every sentence with “Abe says” or “Abe thinks,” considers him a wildly original thinker, but the audience never sees nor hears any evidence of that.
Rather, in Phoenix’s shifty-eyed, shambolic portrayal, we see a man appalled by the disconnect between his true self and others’ idealized projections. For her part, Stone is so well cast as the naive, adoring sylph that she teeters on becoming a caricature. Few actresses are so wide-eyed, literally and figuratively. As charming as she is, and as energetically as she throws herself into the role of would-be odalisque — “I love it when you order for me,” she moons at one point — she begins to have trouble with Allen’s dialogue toward the end of the movie, when things become both murky for her character and also stunningly, soberingly clear.
With a nod toward “Match Point,” the plot here hinges on the perfect crime. But for Abe, it’s not enough to be logistically flawless. He wants the act to be aesthetically and morally perfect as well.
It’s impossible to watch “Irrational Man” and not be aware of Allen’s autobiography, an echo that extends beyond Jill and Abe’s May-December relationship. Allen indicts the ethical exceptionalism of Abe the Great Intellectual, but there’s little or no daylight between his protagonist and Woody the Great Artist. From Abe’s irresistibility to both young and age-appropriate women, to his brave refusal of Jill’s advances, to the film’s final moments of grim accountability, it’s possible to read “Irrational Man” as an exercise in have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too wish fulfillment. The fact that perfunctory comeuppance turns out to be not nearly as satisfying as messier moral ambiguity is something that the filmmaker and his viewers will have to reckon with on their own.
R. At area theaters. Contains
some obscenity and sexual content. 96 minutes.