In his new movie Irrational Man, Woody Allen chews over existential and ethical questions that feel so familiar, they go down without much struggle. That's not a good thing for a movie that's trying to deal with disturbing moral questions.
Allen's movie toys with big ideas, but little in Irrational Man seems deeply felt. And the movie's intellectual life seems more like patina than a rich vein of dramatic ore.
A capable Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dispirited philosophy professor and former political activist who has concluded that life is meaningless.
Newly arrived at fictional Braylin College in Rhode Island, Abe is regarded as brilliant but erratic, maybe even a little scary. He has a reputation as a womanizer, and doesn't seem to care about anything. He goes nowhere without a flask full of single-malt Scotch.
Allen does a decent job establishing an academic milieu that seems far removed from mundane realities, but doesn't seem to know what to do with the rest of his movie, which eventually arrives at a far-fetched turning point.
Abe springs to life only after he tries to plan the perfect murder.
Of course, there's also sex.
Seeing an opportunity to relieve her boredom, an unhappily married professor (Parker Posey) tries to drag Abe into the sack. Downtrodden and impotent, Abe can't initially oblige.
Abe also resists but ultimately succumbs to the earnest charms of one of his students (a lively and appealing Emma Stone). By the time Abe gives in to Jill, thoughts of murder have reinvigorated his dormant libido.
The supposedly fascinating Abe begins to take over Jill's life. She's smart, young and still-impressionable. She's also beginning to lose touch with her adoring boyfriend, a sincere college kid played by Jamie Blackley.
At various times, Allen makes us privy to Abe's thoughts. At other times, we listen to Jill's thoughts, not that either of them is all that interesting.
Particularly in the early going, Allen clutters the dialogue with talk about Kierkegaard and Kant. Maybe that's why the movie seems like a strange hybrid: part term paper, part thriller and part satire about academia.
The theme in Irrational Man -- the meaning of ethics in a meaningless and random universe -- was better handled by Allen in movies such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.
I'd say Irrational Man improves on Allen's last outing, Magic in the Moonlight, which also cast Stone in a principal role, and Phoenix, Stone and Posey remain in good form throughout.
But for all its attempts to deal with weighty matters, Irrational Man comes off as slight. It's a minor addition to the expansive Allen catalog -- not to mention one that overuses Ramsey Lewis' rendition of The In Crowd.
The bottom line: Irrational Man isn't difficult to watch; it is, however, not always easy to believe.