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At different points in the new Woody Allen film Irrational Man, a character tries to win a prize at a fairground stall and plays Russian roulette. Following the ups and downs of Allen’s later career can feel much the same. Sometimes you triumphantly hook the rubber duck and the reward is Blue Jasmine; another day you pull the trigger and end up watching Magic in the Moonlight.
His latest falls somewhere between the two. Its anti-hero is Professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), freshly installed at a New England college with a hip flask of single malt and a surfeit of crumpled charisma. His fixation is morality; his book, naturally, unfinished; the expectation on campus that he will “put some Viagra into the philosophy department”.
That turns out to be the set-up of a gag: for all his lost-soul charm, Lucas is physically unable to sleep with either of the women who instantly pursue him, awestruck student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) or bored Chemistry professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey). He is, we learn, sapped of vitality, his joie de vivre drained by failed marriages and man’s inhumanity to man.
Tart as it is, the film can’t entirely crack the nut of how to tell a story about ennui without the audience shrugging too. Yet the key to Abe’s mojo eventually turns up, and proves not to be sex but death. After overhearing a stranger bemoaning the cruelty of a local judge, our man is gleefully struck by the notion of a murder. The great French misanthropists Chabrol and Clouzot look on approvingly, and so do we at the arrival of some narrative pep.
The sexual politics are murky in a film where two highly intelligent women compete to cheat on their partners, eager for the kind of man who orders for them in restaurants; yet Stone and Posey excel. They also get the best lines: “He’s a real sufferer, Roy,” Jill scolds her boyfriend after he compares himself with Abe. “You had shingles.”
It’s Phoenix who can’t transform his part into more than a conceit. Abe, though, will be fine: with his grasp of Kierkegaard and knack for a well-turned homicide, he’ll have his own TV series by the time you read this.
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