For a moment - well, a good half hour to be honest - there's a breath of air in Woody Allen's by-now staid, musty world of cruel ironies and bored academics. Joaquin Phoenix is the latest actor to enter Allenland through the front gates, but not for him the traditional role as a "stand-in" or a substitute for Mr. Allen's neurotic central characters, even though he is playing a philosophy professor at an Eastern Seaboard college.
No, Mr. Phoenix carries his very own baggage and acting style, and Mr. Allen lets him - that means that Irrational Man may very well be a worthy follow-up to Blue Jasmine, also carried by a superb and slightly un-Allenian Oscar-winning central performance from Cate Blanchett, and certainly a film making good use of its star's persona. Mr. Phoenix's Abe Lucas, a couldn't-care-less rock-star lecturer with unusual takes on moral philosophy, comes on like a hurricane or a bull in a china shop as he settles into the brownish, fusty, hopelessly comfortable Braylin campus. You kind of applaud the writer/director for letting into his cinema someone who would seem to be so far away from it, and maybe that would be the whole point of casting the actor.
But it doesn't take too long, alas, to understand that Mr. Allen hasn't really given Mr. Phoenix anything of substance to work with. Irrational Man is a pale carbon copy of earlier and far superior Allen works like Crimes and Misdemeanors and, to a point, Match Point: as the professor becomes involved romantically with both a sex-starved colleague (Parker Posey) and a fascinated student (Emma Stone), a casual conversation heard at a diner will lead him towards the idea of committing the perfect crime as his way out of a personal and professional rut. Despite Mr. Phoenix soulfully over-the-top immersion in Abe Lucas' philosophically-inspired mania, the Hitchcockian narrative progression of the plot - starting off as a spin on Strangers on a Train and ending with a conclusion straight out Mr. Hitchcock's television half-hours - eventually denounces Irrational Man as a lesser, copy-paste job from an accomodated old master that can't be bothered any more.
And as you begin to sense that the actor is becoming too big for the film he's in, you also realise that Mr. Allen has lost whatever interest he had in either plot or character, eventually "disposing" of him in the most cynically dismissive way possible. Whatever promises that first half hour held - and one of the best recent lead performances in an Allen film - are totally wasted by the remainder of the running time. It feels a massive, cynical cop-out from a director who, while still being able to pull the odd rabbit out of a hat, seems here to be running on fumes.
US, 2015, 94 minutes
Cast Jamie Blackley, Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey, Emma Stone
Director and screenwriter Woody Allen; cinematographer Darius Khondji; designer Santo Loquasto; costumes Suzy Benzinger; editor Alisa Lepselter; producers Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson, Gravier Productions and Perdido Productions
Screened September 4th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening