“So much of philosophy is verbal masturbation,” a disgusted professor tells his college students in Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man.” The proof is the film itself.
Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) burned out long ago, after writing respected books and articles about situational ethics. Nothing rouses him now: Not a cushy job at a new college, constant intake of alcohol or sexual overtures by fellow prof Rita (Parker Posey). Even the adoration of coed Jill (Emma Stone) barely interests him.
When Abe hears a woman in a diner bemoaning the rulings of a corrupt judge, who’s taking her children away because he’s one of her husband’s pals, Abe awakens. He decides to kill the judge as a disinterested act of justice, but his plan soon unravels.
Plotting has never been writer-director Allen’s strong point, and the story falls apart. It depends on coincidences that are unlikely individually and ridiculous together, and the finale – presumably an assertion that life depends entirely on chance – yields a minuscule anticlimax.
None of the characters inspires an emotional connection, despite a good performance by Phoenix and a superb one by Stone. Abe’s lazy and self-indulgent, Jill a foolish idolater. Rita sounds one note of bitter loneliness, with Posey’s mouth clamped in a thin slit of anger.
The movie has typical Allen earmarks: It takes place (except for extras and a secretary who gets one scene) in an all-white world, where a physically unappealing man attracts gorgeous women half his age because he’s such an intellectual.
It also reminds us of Allen’s fascination with moral relativism, a theme he has explored for decades. (I recommend “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”) But he doesn’t convince us this murder might be necessary; we’d have to be on Abe’s side, at least a little, to care what happens to him.
Even Allen’s remarkable knack for picking appropriate music has deserted him. Ramsey Lewis’ ambling jazz take on “The In Crowd,” a song none of these characters would be likely to know or enjoy, drones throughout the score.
Allen, who’ll turn 80 in December, still makes a feature every year and has agreed to write and direct six 30-minute episodes for Amazon to stream in 2016. That’s bad news for moviegoers who still stir a little at the mention of his name: “Irrational Man” is one of his thinnest pictures, and he’s planning to thin himself out even further. What’s the point?
STARS: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey.
WRITER-DIRECTOR: Woody Allen.
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes.
RATING: R (language and sexual content).