'Irrational Man': Cannes Review

Stands among the better entries of Woody Allen's fourth-act career phase

In Woody Allen's latest, Joaquin Phoenix plays a philosophy professor who takes steps to shake off his inertia, and Emma Stone is his beguiled student caught in the fallout.

Woody Allen is in fine vintage form in Irrational Man, a slinky, jazz-infused existential teaser in which various themes from some of the veteran filmmaker's most memorable work dovetail into a darkly humorous quasi-thriller explored with a deft lightness of touch. Flavorfully set amid the historic architecture and hermetic atmosphere of a small New England college town, the film places Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in the quintessential Allen character dynamic of a Pygmalion mentor relationship that turns sour. It ranks among the director's more pleasurable entertainments of recent years and should be a solid performer for Sony Pictures Classics following its Cannes launch.

The cold-blooded central plot turn invites immediate comparison to Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. But Irrational Man has elements that recall any number of Allen films, giving it a gentle scent of nostalgia while at the same time remaining vigorous, intellectually engaging and even youthful. That latter aspect is amplified by the appealing vitality of Stone; she was wasted in the strained misfire Magic in the Moonlight but here takes her place among the smart, captivating young women who have provided nectar for Allen and his screen surrogates throughout his career.

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The big questions of philosophy, morality and the randomness or meaning of existence that have surfaced repeatedly in his work bubble up again in ways more playful than deep, as does the sardonic ambivalence toward academia. But all that shouldn't suggest some sort of Woody's-Greatest-Hits retread; the energy and freshness here are quite intoxicating.

There's alluring beauty in the craftsmanship, too, evident in Darius Khondji's textured cinematography, with its rich color palette, supple movement and elegant compositions animating the widescreen frame. Likewise, Alisa Lepselter's fluid editing, and the invigorating use of music — notably the Ramsey Lewis Trio's cool jazz instrumental of "The 'In' Crowd" featured throughout — drives the transitions with its compulsive toe-tapping beat.

Allen takes the literary device of dueling narrators and incorporates their voiceovers into the film's lissome rhythms. One of them is disillusioned philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Phoenix), who arrives at his new job plagued by doubts about his place in the world, and preceded by near-legendary tales of his passionate affairs, global crusades and bleak depressions. He's a romantic man of mystery in a staid environment that's starved for it.

Abe's new place of work is the fictional Braylin College, a tony Rhode Island campus near Providence that appears to be a stand-in for Brown. Despite his paunch and unhealthy pallor, Abe draws the unsubtle advances of Rita (Parker Posey), a lonely science professor looking to escape from a dreary marriage. While going through the motions of discussing Kant, Kierkegaard and situational ethics, Abe also turns the head of his bright student Jill (Stone), the film's second narrator. Her instant fixation with the brooding professor ("He's a real sufferer") wears thin with her doting, uncomplicated boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley).

While Abe surrenders to Rita's insistent seduction tactics, he tries to keep his blossoming friendship with Jill strictly platonic. The development of their mutual attraction is sketched in infectious walking-and-talking scenes, with Stone's saucer eyes widening further still as Jill gravitates toward the gloomy but charming Abe like a moth to a flame. She steadily becomes as much an equal as an adoring disciple, making the relationship more intriguing as the stakes are raised.

The stimulation of new friendship and romance can't quite budge Abe out of his funk, or ease his feelings of futility concerning his teaching and writing work. "Just what the world needs," he deadpans. "Another book on Heidegger and Fascism." He can't reconcile having set out to be a world-changer, only to end up another passive, sexually dysfunctional intellectual.

Abe is a classic Allen figure, stewing in frustration and self-disgust, and Phoenix plays him with a wonderful baggy, lived-in quality that makes us want to climb inside the character's whiskey-sozzled head, the same way Jill and Rita do. The actor does charismatic complexity and creeping imbalance like nobody else.

The turning point for Abe comes as he and Jill eavesdrop on a conversation in a diner, listening to the unhappy turn that a complete stranger's life has taken. That presents Abe with an illuminating opportunity, which he assesses and acts upon as a lone agent, discovering a methodical sense of purpose as well as a warped rationale for what he's about to do. The rejuvenating results are instantaneous, as evidenced by Rita's enthusiastic review of his new sexual prowess. "What happened to the philosopher?" she asks. "Christ, you were like a caveman."

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The film then smoothly shifts gears as the fallout from Abe’s "meaningful act" reverberates all over town, becoming the subject of dinner-party chatter, campus gossip and speculation from students and faculty. Despite the risk of exposure, Abe finds it all quite scintillating, fueling his high even as clever Jill starts putting together the pieces.

Allen's dialogue is witty, his plotting zings along with forward momentum in all the right places, and his observation of elastic moral principles in flux is both mischievous and unsettling, yielding a tasty final-act Hitchcockian twist. The film's relative breeziness plays in agreeable contrast to its sampling of weighty philosophical views and murky deeds as a daring bid for renewal.

The small cast benefits from confining its star power to the leads. Posey plays on her eccentricities as an actor while still keeping them firmly in check, finding both desperation and amusing acerbity in Rita. Blackley is appealing as the vanilla alternative to Abe's heady magnetism. And sharp impressions are made in small roles by Betsy Aidem and Ethan Phillips as Jill's academic parents, and Sophie von Haselberg as her wealthy friend.

Though it's an unconventional romance that takes a very uneasy turn, this morality tale wouldn't work without a convincing infatuation of the heart and mind at its center. And that element is propelled all the way by the sparky chemistry of Phoenix and Stone.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Jamie Blackley, Parker Posey, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg, Robert Petkoff, Tom Kemp
Production companies: Sony Pictures Classics, Gravier Productions, Perdido
Director-screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Executive producers: Adam B. Stern, Allan Teh, Ronald L. Chez
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Suzy Benzinger
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
Casting directors: Juliet Taylor, Patricia DiCerto
Not yet rated, 95 minutes.

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