The Woodman is back for the summer and he treads over predictable forests in "Irrational Man," starring Joaquin Phoenix, who duly delivers Woody Allen's voice and monologue.
Phoenix is professor Abe Lucas at Braylin College, a small Rhode Island campus. He is struck with an acute apathy and a lethargy of spirit. Despite his torpor, he is popular with his students who see enough of his iconoclastic views to admire him.
Chief among his enthusiasts is the idealistic Jill (Emma Stone) who quickly becomes enamored of his nonchalant manner and fatalist opinions. Though romantically secured to handsome but humdrum Roy (Jamie Blackley) who she clearly loves, Jill is hooked on the spontaneous and wobbly professor.
The two spend more and more time together, displaying a verbal intimacy while remaining physically platonic.
At a lunch visit, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation involving a profoundly bad judge, one Thomas Spangler ( Tom Kemp), whose custody rulings are causing great pain and distress to a loving mother.
What if I did something to help this situation, thinks Abe. Would my life then have a positive result?
Although the narrative progression is all too familiar considering Allen's legendary oeuvre complete with philosophical quips, questioning voiceovers and the routine angst-ridden drifting, events are helped a bit by the unusual melancholy and subtle mania of Joaquin Phoenix.
This is almost, but not quite enough to make the film a solid and satisfying experience.
There are some good and nearly great scenes here, most notably when Abe is at a party and decides to try Russian Roulette on a whim. In another scene, a volatile and quietly crazed Abe takes Jill through a circus mirror where bodies are distorted in ways that are both shocking and sweet. Which Abe, which Jill is which here? The circus grotesquerie of both characters, although hidden, may rise above the surface at any moment in accordance with happenstance.
This concept in addition to the dialogue between Abe and Jill makes the initial quandary lively and brisk. Add to the mix some evocative cinematography by Darius Khondji, showing Abe standing separate and apart from his lover Rita (Parker Posey) on the gray and jagged sea ledges of Rhode Island, and it would seem that the maestro does indeed have another winner.
By midway however, the plot and momentum stalls out with endless comings and goings between Abe, Jill and her acquaintances in wondering just what the professor might be up to. Several circular discussions around tables and cafes ensue. Rita is questioned and Jill's parents inquire but the events are treated as superficial whimsy rather than with the preceding moral and provocative import. The melodrama becomes a hint of Agatha Christie rather than Dostoyevsky, given at a snail's pace.
Such is the case that when the act does unfold, it feels too rapid, abrupt and too neatly packaged to be lasting.
Abe's final decision, although recognizable from the previously excellent work "Match Point," does have apprehension, weight and energy. It is only the last stroke, cutely reminiscent of an O. Henry short story that makes everything feel too sewn in the edges with a feeling of being taken.
That said, Woody Allen is a distinctive creator and fans will find much to like here, not least of which is some glib Sartre slinging by Joaquin Phoenix, an actor in good harmony with Emma Stone who acts as the director's superego.
"Irrational Man" might be too rational in its seriocomic intent, but due solely to the strong leads and some nostalgic angst, the most regular auteur in cinema still manages to have quirk in his questioning.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org