“Irrational Man,” Woody Allen’s latest film, represents Allen making a version of “Crime and Punishment” for at least the third time, and the story of an older man finding bliss in the charms of a younger woman for about the 25th time. It plays something like a Woody’s Greatest Hits, minus only specifically Jewish angst and a gorgeous, daffy blond.
The film has its charms, but it’s ultimately a lot of been-there, done-that. And what we saw when Tom Wolfe tried to write a novel about college applies here as well: When a man who’s past the age of 75 sets out to create a work of art about today’s college life, it can only end in tears.
“Irrational Man” stars Joaquin Phoenix as a celebrated author and philosophy professor who takes a teaching job at a fictional Rhode Island college. Despite his pronounced paunch (prosthetic, I hope), tendency towards gibberish philosophizing and obvious depression and alcoholism, women can’t stop falling at his feet. These include one of his students (Emma Stone) and a married fellow professor (Parker Posey.)
It feels at first like another of Allen’s trademark tales in which a guy falls for a woman many years his junior, like last year’s mediocre “Magic in the Moonlight,” also featuring Stone. But midway through, there’s a twist- out of nowhere, Phoenix decides to commit a murder. And rather than take the guilt-ridden Dostoyevskian route like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point,” this crime makes Phoenix… feel alive and purposeful.
It’s a worthy and interesting twist, although ultimately not one able to sustain a whole movie. It also doesn’t explain how multiple women in the same college town see it fit to chuck their existing boyfriends and husbands in favor of this drunken buffoon. Not to mention, Woody’s not exactly a keen observer of how young people act these days- in his universe, college students still get their news from the morning paper. Meanwhile, the third act just plain gets silly.
Both leads are quite good, though. Allen, apparently having tired of Scarlett Johansson, appears to have chosen Stone as his latest muse of choice, and she’s a good fit for Allen’s style. Phoenix continues his streak of outstanding roles, though even he can’t make some of the screenplay’s gibberish make sense. Posey is quite good too, although I confess that for most of the running time I thought she was Rosemarie DeWitt.
A version of this movie, called “The Rewrite,” was made earlier this year with Hugh Grant, also played an aging, down-on-his-luck college professor who simultaneously romances both a young student and a woman his own age. The difference is, the Allen film doesn’t even bother to make it an issue that a professor/student relationship might be a problem.
Woody Allen turns 80 later this year. Does he have one more great film in him? It wouldn’t surprise me. “Irrational Man” is more middle-of-the-pack Woody.