Film review: Irrational Man (12A)

Joaquin Pheonix plots a judge's death.
Joaquin Pheonix plots a judge's death.
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In front of and behind the camera, writer, director and actor Woody Allen has cultivated the persona of a neurotic, insecure, anxious and self-absorbed voyeur of the frail human condition.

His pithy one-liners are quoted endlessly and the controversies which have stained Allen’s personal relationships do not seem to have tempered affection for his dialogue-heavy work.

In Irrational Man, the film-maker returns to dramatic canon after the froth and frippery of Magic in the Moonlight, reuniting with leading lady Emma Stone for a spry tale of trial, retribution and murder most torrid. It’s a rematch made in mediocrity as for all its crisp verbal acrobatics this modern day mystery lacks a killer instinct.

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Lead characters are sketched lightly and we struggle to tether a strong emotional bond to any of the players as they pontificate on the morality of doling out justice to the wicked and corrupt.

“I took direct action and eliminated a cancer,” argues the film’s unlikely executioner as motive for his heinous actions.

The storyline sees anguished philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) arrive at the New England college campus of Braylin in the midst of an existential crisis.

Fellow members of staff expect Abe to inject “some Viagra into the philosophy department” and ruffle faculty feathers.

But Abe’s disenchantment with his life of teaching and political activism percolates in rambling lessons to wide-eyed students.

“If you learn nothing else from me, you should learn that philosophy is verbal masturbation,” he informs his class plainly.

At this low ebb, Abe casually welcomes the amorous overtures of fellow professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), whose marriage to her husband Paul (Robert Petkoff) has stagnated.

He also intoxicates perky student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), to the chagrin of her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley).

Sitting in a diner one afternoon, Abe and Jill overhear a tearful conversation in the next booth about an unfeeling judge, who is needlessly wrenching apart happy families.

Abe is enraged and resolves to reinvigorate his humdrum existence by taking the life of Judge Spangler (Tom Kemp).

Committing the perfect murder should be simple for a celebrated man of learning; eluding the long arm of the law might be somewhat trickier.

Irrational Man explores Allen’s lifelong fascination with philosophy. Characters wrestle tirelessly with questions of free will, destiny and humanity, which might get the writer-director’s juices flowing, but hardly sets our pulses racing.

Sporting an impressive belly for the role, Phoenix wallows in his character’s ennui and struggles to generate enough on-screen chemistry with Stone to convince us she would fall for his morose academic.

Plotting is linear and Allen makes clear his feelings on personal vengeance in the film’s disappointing and telegraphed final reckoning.

Rating: 3/5 On general release

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