‘Irrational Man’
Woody Allen
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

There is no old jazz song played, off a 78, during the opening credits of Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man.” There’s no song at all — something he’s only done once or twice since “Annie Hall” and “Interiors.” It’s one of his few shot in rectangular cinemascope as opposed to the plain aspect ratio that’s roughly the shape of a modern television. It stars an actor, Joaquin Phoenix, not even trying to do the Woody Allen type — neurotic, stammering, whiny-voiced. Phoenix is mumbly and shambling as ever, in his own world, and surely the most distinctive thespian to headline a Woody Allen movie since Sean Penn freaked up “Sweet and Lowdown” 16 years ago. And it’s rated R — a casual R, not like the ostentatiously filthy “Deconstructing Harry,” and therefore, in the largely sanitized (though always sexualized) Woody catalog, all the odder.

If all this makes his 46th feature sound like a standout, it shouldn’t. It’s his umpteenth look at the meaninglessness of existence through the prism of murder — a subject he’s returned to again and again in his latter years, as his passing on into the infinite looms ever closer. Despite the lip service paid to it in “Match Point” and “Cassandra’s Dreams” — as well as in every single Woody Allen film ever made, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” perhaps excepted — the topic is the only thing that interests Phoenix’s Abe, a dashing, rock star philosophy professor so bored that he’s taken a job at a remote New York State university. He’s busted out his materialistic worldview so many times he can barely work up any enthusiasm, even for the young student, Jill (Emma Stone), who throws herself at him despite the protestations of her boring boyfriend (Jamie Blackley, who thanks to his surname gets top billing).

When Abe eavesdrops on a woman complaining about a local judge whose death would save her from a life of destitution, he decides to find a foolproof scheme to kill him in a way that won’t get him caught, either by the police nor by a higher power, who/which doesn’t exist anyway. It’s another reflection on amorality in a godless universe, only with a slightly different outcome — even, in a way, a sunnier one — than those that met Woody antiheroes past. It’s also a lot lazier, and not just because Abe's plan is gobsmackingly dumb, and not in a jokey way. “Irrational Man” is not an intense drama but nor is it a comedy, especially since one of the only bona fide one-liners namechecks Viagra. It’s not clear what the tone is, though that waffling has proven productive in films like “Blue Jasmine,” where we’re not sure how serious (or funny) it will get until it’s too late. Here it just seems sloppy, lazy, as though Woody was more bored than his protagonist. The serious chatter isn’t plodding, as it often is in serious Woodys, but it is powerfully forgettable — merely there to move he plot along, minus his distinctive voice, or any discernible voice at all.

Structurally, though, “Irrational Man” is still comfortable, in this case like a ratty pillow with two holes and the stuffing coming out that you can't bear to bin. Like Clint Eastwood, Woody makes films in such a stubbornly rigid way — sometimes mislabeled as “old fashioned” — that their very stolidity can be oddly soothing. Watching “Irrational Man” feels like you’re patiently turning pages on its own script, knowing where all this is going, knowing where all the beats will land to the second and wearily twiddling the thumbs even as you keep plowing through. It’s a lesser work by a master, albeit one who doesn’t think he’s a master and who, here, truly seems to be trying to convince himself of such. And as with any lesser work by someone who can be great just by being, it still has notable bits (Parker Posey as a fellow horny teacher, Phoenix’s jazzy mangling of Woody’s dialogue, a plant-and-payoff that’s predictable but satisfying anyway) that make it hard to cast into oblivion.

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