Joaquin Phoenix plays a scheming philosophy professor in Woody Allen’s latest. And while it doesn’t compare to the director’s earlier masterpieces, it could have been a whole lot worse, writes Nicholas Barber.

The trailer for Woody Allen’s new film, Irrational Man, implied that it would be the story of a middle-aged misanthrope and the much younger beauty who falls madly in love with him, a story he has already told in Manhattan, Husbands and Wives, and Whatever Works. But it turns out that the trailer was tricking us. Well, sort of. Irrational Man is partly about a cross-generational romance, it’s true, but primarily it’s about another of Allen’s fixations: the morality and practicality of murder. It’s a topic that he addresses here with energy and focus – compared to some of his recent attempts, anyway. Put it this way: if Irrational Man is nowhere near as good as Crimes and Misdemeanours, at least it’s nowhere near as bad as Match Point or Cassandra’s Dream.

Its anti-hero, Abe Lucas, is a jaded philosophy lecturer played by Joaquin Phoenix, who mercifully resists the temptation to do a Woody impersonation. Abe has long since concluded that an in-depth knowledge of Heidegger can’t help him through the misery of life, and the single malt he keeps glugging from a hip flask isn’t much better. But his hungover gloom only adds to his dark, rebel-without-a-cause allure, and when he gets a teaching job at a pretty Rhode Island college, the staff and students alike are thrilled to have such a notoriously saturnine nihilist in their midst. His best student, Jill (Emma Stone), is smitten, and a frustrated science professor, Rita (Parker Posey), barely waits until her husband’s back is turned before suggesting an affair. Abe isn’t interested in either of them, which just goes to show how deep his ennui really is.

The long opening segment of the film, which delineates this little triangle, is Allen at his late-period worst – vague and repetitive. The clumsy dialogue is matched with two separate narrations, one supplied by Abe and one by Jill. That’s two narrations too many. When you have an actress as luminous and expressive as Stone, you don’t need her voice-over to say, “My thoughts were very mixed up and troubled.”

Fortunately, the film eventually kicks into gear. Abe and Jill are talking in a diner when they overhear a tearful divorcee lamenting that she could lose custody of her children to her shiftless husband, not because she has done anything wrong, but because her husband’s lawyer is friendly with an unprincipled judge. If only the judge would die of cancer, she sobs. A lightbulb pings above Abe’s head. This is the purpose that his life has been lacking. If he kills the judge, he will make the world a better place, and he will have done something rare and remarkable, too. Pausing only to namedrop Kant and Dostoyevsky, he sets about planning the perfect murder.

At this point, Irrational Man combines the philosophical weightiness of Allen’s best dramas with the giddy playfulness of his best comedies. Abe is enlivened by his daring mission, and the viewer by the prospect of seeing a Hollywood vigilante thriller given the Allen touch. As Abe plots the murder, and discusses it, hypothetically, with the unwitting Jill, the film is so bright and intriguing that it begins to look as if Allen had made the opening section boring on purpose, so as to back up Abe’s argument that it’s actions that count, not academic prattle.

Don’t get your hopes too high, though. Once Abe has set his scheme in motion, Allen fails to add the twists and complications that the scenario deserves. Rather than explore his premise, as he would have done 20 or 30 years ago, he throws it away in his rush to get to the end credits. Once again, a potentially great film has been sabotaged by his typical this’ll-do sloppiness.

One example of this comes when Jill’s boyfriend proposes that they move to London in order to study at Oxford University. Wouldn’t it be simpler to move to Oxford? Another example is Allen’s refusal to commission any tension-building music. Instead, he plays The ‘In’ Crowd by the Ramsey Lewis Trio over and over and over again. When the track is heard at the start of the film, it makes a lively, toe-tapping change from Allen’s usual Porter, Gershwin or Berlin standards, but 90 minutes later it was driving me up the wall. If I ever hear that song again, I’ll commit the perfect murder.

★★★☆☆

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