Poor Emma Stone.
Having starred in writer-director Cameron Crowe’s misguided “Aloha” in May, she’s back in writer-director Woody Allen’s irritating “Irrational Man.” At this rate, she’ll get to work with the Coen brothers just as soon as they decide to remake “Police Academy.”
“Irrational Man” continues a summer of miscastings for the talented, likable actress. But while Allen’s latest plays to exactly zero of Stone’s strengths, unlike Crowe, he at least had the good sense to not ask her to play a quarter-Hawaiian, quarter-Chinese woman named Allison Ng.
Jill Pollard (Stone) has grown up at Rhode Island’s Braylin College, where her parents (Ethan Phillips, Betsy Aidem) are members of the music faculty. Their lives, and seemingly the existences of everyone else across the small campus, are turned upside down with the arrival of noted philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix).
This is because Braylin is the most gossipy place this side of “Gossip Girl.” Not only is the campus abuzz with stories, rumors and innuendo surrounding the troubled professor, his married colleague, Rita Richards (Parker Posey,) latches onto Abe right away and promises to fill him in on who’s sleeping with whom.
Abe is the sort of damaged scoundrel who leads with his paunch and is forever swigging vintage single malt from a hip flask. A charitable drinker, he offers others a slug only to see them overreact and recoil as though that flask were filled with snakes and black tar heroin. (This is just one of numerous instances in which “Irrational Man” feels like it should have been set in an earlier, more innocent era.)
Jill is intrigued by the newcomer, even before her first class with Abe, during which he charms his dozen or so students with quotes like, “If you learn nothing else from me, you should learn that most of philosophy is verbal masturbation.”
Before long, Jill finds herself unable to resist gush-rambling about him. She’s like the kid from “Jerry Maguire,” except every useless fact is about Abe. Honestly, Donald Trump doesn’t spend this much time talking about Donald Trump.
“Hey, can we get off the topic of Abe Lucas?” her boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) eventually snaps. Maybe, but it sure doesn’t seem likely.
Jill isn’t the only one obsessed with Abe, though. Rita soon shares his bed after bringing him a bottle of his favorite single malt during a downpour and pleading with him: “I hope you’re not going to send me back out into the rain without sleeping with me.”
The whole thing feels like much ado about a nothing. Abe is so far gone, suffering from blockages of both a writing and sexual nature, he hardly seems worth the trouble.
Then, one day at a diner, Abe and Jill eavesdrop on a woman (Susan Pourfar) as she tearfully recounts the misery of the corrupt judge (Tom Kemp) who’s about to give custody of her kids to their deadbeat dad. The idea of planning the murder of a judge he’s never met gives Abe a new purpose in life. Suddenly, there’s a spring in his step — or at least less mope in his shuffle.
“Irrational Man” feels like a flawed script that Allen shoved in a trunk years ago, then dusted off to maintain his yearly film quota. Rather than correct some of those flaws — dialogue that clangs off the ears, stilted narration by Phoenix and Stone and acres of artifice — he relies on the intrusive, nauseatingly repetitive use of the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “The In Crowd,” suggestive of a much jauntier film, to try to pound moviegoers into submission and convince them that they’re having a good time.
Phoenix has been on an incredible roll of late, with his work in “The Master,” “Her” and last winter’s underappreciated “Inherent Vice.” Stone, in her second pairing with Allen following last summer’s similarly lackluster “Magic in the Moonlight,” is coming off an Oscar nomination for her work in “Birdman.” And Posey continues to be a delight who doesn’t work nearly enough. Yet they’re rarely able to make anything in “Irrational Man” feel like something real that’s happening to actual people.
If nothing else, “Irrational Man” ends well.
But it’s an ending that would have been more appreciated in a short film, and it certainly doesn’t justify the means.
REVIEW: “Irrational Man.” Running time: 94 minutes. Rating: R; some language and sexual content. Grade: C-.
Movie review: Woody Allen’s latest isn’t just Irrational,’ it’s irritating
Poor Emma Stone.