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'Irrational Man' movie review -- 2 stars

Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene

Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Irrational Man." Photo Credit: Sabrina Lantos

Woody Allen rarely misfires in two successive years, but "Irrational Man" marks the second straight major disappointment from the prolific icon after last summer's listless "Magic in the Moonlight."

This one's even more of a disappointment than that trifle, a labored thought experiment masquerading as a motion picture entertainment.

Sure it has all of the filmmaker's familiar riffs on philosophy, the absence of purpose and utter meaninglessness of existence.

Joaquin Phoenix, who specializes in characters with more of a brute-like quality than the intellectuals that typically populate Allen's universe, fits in nicely as the protagonist, while Darius Khondji's cinematography evocatively captures the golden tones of the sea-swept Newport, Rhode Island, setting at magic hour.

The movie proves two indisputable facts, though: The first is that Allen has no business writing college students, because he has absolutely no concept of what they act like, or how they think and feel.

Even in the stylized milieu that Allen has occupied for decades, where the most insignificant of characters can still hold court on Kierkegaard and have deep conversations about the futility of it all, the utter lack of modern touches feels idiosyncratic at best.

The second truth affirmed by "Irrational Man" is that Allen really should move on from his older man-younger woman cinematic romantic fixation. Leaving aside any off-screen considerations, the charm has long since worn off this particular gambit.

Here, Phoenix stars as the boozing, depressed philosophy professor Abe Lucas who finds what he assumes to be a purpose when he a) begins spending a lot of time with pretty student Jill (Emma Stone) and b) decides to murder a judge. There's no sense in getting into the how or why he plans his criminal activity, as it is all but immaterial to anything beyond an oppressively abstract existential study that would have felt stale coming from Allen in 1985.

This is Allen's 46th feature and it stands to reason that even the most brilliant of minds would start repeating itself at a certain point.

There's no intrinsic harm in that, but you'd hope for something more than a half-baked series of scenes in which Lucas mopes and ruminates, while Jill looks on with fascination and barely contained lust.

Allen knows movies require story and action to keep an audience interested. One could speculate about why he has almost totally abandoned those concepts here, but at this point he's more than earned the right to fail.


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