After Alfred Hitchcock and his Gallic disciple, Claude Chabrol, has any filmmaker devoted more screen time to contemplating the mechanics of the “perfect” murder than Woody Allen? His latest, “Irrational Man,” adds to a tally that also includes “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Match Point” and the little-seen “Cassandra’s Dream” — only, unlike those films’ homicidal protagonists, the philosophical anti-hero of Allen’s 45th feature kills not for love or money, but rather for a kind of existential clarity. That conceit puts a fresh spin on a familiar premise and marks “Irrational Man” as one of the Woodman’s more offbeat and ambitiously weird projects since the fragmented “Deconstructing Harry” in 1997, though less conventionally entertaining than recent home runs like “Blue Jasmine” and “Midnight in Paris.” Arthouse traffic should be decent but modest for the July 17 Sony Classics release.
In a role that suits his laconic, rum-soaked rhythms nearly as well as did the stoner detective from last year’s “Inherent Vice,” Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor whose appointment to a small Rhode Island college sends tremors through the campus before he’s even set foot on it. He’s an alcoholic who likes to have affairs with his students, says one rumor; his wife recently left him for his best friend, says another; he witnessed another friend get blown up by a land mine in Iraq, or maybe it was Afghanistan. Whatever the case, Abe Lucas seems to be the biggest thing to hit fictional Braylin College (actually Newport’s Salve Regina U.) in at least a decade, and Allen paints these opening scenes in such broadly comic strokes that you half expect the entire campus to erupt in a musical number upon Abe’s arrival.
It doesn’t, but Abe certainly lives up to his own advance hype, shuffling about in a mildly hungover haze, advising his students that “much of philosophy is verbal masturbation,” and showing off his nihilistic inclinations by playing Russian roulette in front of horrified onlookers at an off-campus party. “Emotionally, I had arrived at Zabriskie Point,” Abe tells us in one of the film’s dueling voiceovers. But that only seems to add to his sad-sack allure where Braylin’s female faculty and student body are concerned. They include Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), a bright and bright-eyed student in Abe’s summer “ethical strategies” class (and the movie’s other narrator); and Rita Richards (a delightfully daft Parker Posey), an unhappily married professor who throws herself at Abe with all the subtlety of Mae West courting Cary Grant.
Initially, Abe keeps his distance from both women, partly out of a sense of propriety, but also because his depressive funk has rendered him temporarily impotent. But Abe and Jill nevertheless start spending extracurricular time together, in which the sunny undergrad tries to cast some light into the professor’s gloom. Once upon a time, we learn, Abe was a firebrand activist and relief worker with stints in Darfur and post-Katrina New Orleans to his credit, but somewhere along the way he stopped believing he could change the world and resolved to be one of life’s passive observers. All that changes, though, when Abe and Jill overhear a hushed conversation in a local diner, in which a desperate woman recounts the details of a bitter custody battle, including the ex-husband trying to take her children from her, and the corrupt judge who’s solidly in his corner. Abe begins to imagine that, if only someone were to murder said judge, it might make the world a more right and just place. And then he fancies that this hypothetical someone might be him.
Allen asks the audience to take a considerable logical leap there — some will, some won’t — but logic is one of the last things “Irrational Man” has on its mind. (The movie shares its title with a 1958 volume by philosopher and literary critic William Christopher Barrett, which sought to explain existentialism in lay terms to English-language readers.) For Allen — who once joked that he only read Kierkegaard and Freud so he could get girls — this ranks among his most unabashedly intellectual exercises, with references to Dostoevsky, Heidegger, Kant, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir that aren’t just clever name dropping, but part of a bigger discussion “Irrational Man” wants to have about the efforts of writers and thinkers to explain the world, and the vast chasm between theory and practice.
Murder — even the mere thought of it — “unblocks” Abe, both creatively and sexually, and Allen leaves it up to us to tally the moral scorecard (an attitude that will lead some less imaginative observers to position the film as yet another thinly veiled Allen confessional). But an unblocked Abe is still subject to the randomness of fate — another pet Allen theme — which comes home to roost in a climax that’s a veritable illustration of the filmmaker’s own oft-stated philosophy of life: “You’re always searching for control, and in the end you’re at the mercy of the hoisted piano not falling on your head.”
Those ideas sometimes sit a tad uneasily on the surface of “Irrational Man,” which, in its more bluntly scripted moments, has its characters spout aphorisms that sound more like undergraduate thesis topics than natural dialogue — an ideological tennis game to complement “Match Point’s” actual one. But Allen’s visual direction and editing rhythms are particularly sharp and precise this time around, as is his work with the actors. In her second teaming with the director (after last year’s “Magic in the Moonlight”), Stone effortlessly captures the curiosity of young people with their whole lives ahead of them and none of the cynicism earned with age and disappointment. Phoenix, meanwhile, pulls off the trickier task of making us sympathize (at least fleetingly) with a sociopath, all the while avoiding the actorly deathtrap of “doing” Woody.
Shooting for only the fifth time in CinemaScope (after “Manhattan,” “Anything Else,” “Blue Jasmine” and “Magic in the Moonlight”), Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji make Newport look ever so lovely, dappled in sunlight and swathed in pastels. In contrast to the usual bevy of jazz standards on the soundtrack, Allen here turns a single repeated track, the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s instrumental version of “The In Crowd,” into a kind of musical noose that gradually tightens around the characters’ necks.