Irrational Man film review - a somewhat formulaic descent into organised insanity

A morality play without a great deal of heart, this tried and tested formula serves only devout Woody Allen fans.

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in Irrational Man. (Sony Pictures Classics)

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in Irrational Man. (Sony Pictures Classics)

The latest from renowned director Woody Allen, Irrational Man’s interesting premise isn’t quite given the service it deserved by employing lazy plot devices, cliched taboos and characters who just aren’t written well enough for the talented cast.

Joaquin Phoenix is Abe Lucas, a philosophy lecturer newly enrolled to teach at an upmarket New England college campus. Lucas is a washed up philosophy rockstar: despite writing several well-received papers and books and essentially being in the prime of his life, he’s caught up in a self-aware existential crisis from which there seems no escape.

He finds some solace in the kindling of a friendship with Jill, a student of his, played by Emma Stone. The two find a mutual understanding in one another, the friendship forever hinting at progressing into something more, despite Abe’s protestations.

As the two spend more time together, they overhear of a stranger’s troubles in a crowded diner. The woman, set to lose her children in a court case to their unloving father, blames the judge presiding over the proceedings as he is familiar with the man in question.

This sets Abe’s mind ticking, as he pieces together the plan to pull off the perfect, undetectable murder, by stalking the judge to learn his weekly routine, eventually settling on cyanide poisoning by raiding the chemistry stores of the university, through swiping the key belonging to the head of the department, Rita (Parker Posey), with whom he has an on-off relationship. The plotting gives him renewed vigour and libido, a fresh zest for life, ultimately setting him up for downfall.

Irrational Man has some inspired touches - the warm colours of New England contrasting with Abe’s illogical state of mind despite his success, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio song The In Crowd playing whenever Abe sets to work, as if it’s the noise of the cogs in his head grinding to life after remaining inactive for so long.

But the film is riddled with cliche - the lost philosopher, the forbidden love of the student and the teacher - and the subject of ordinary people being driven to murder is one that Woody Allen has approached time and time again in the past. It’s a classic morality play without leaning too heavily on the morality, instead doting too much on Abe’s apparently positive recovery and his relationship with Jill.

Fans of Joaquin Phoenix’s flexible character acting - or devout Allenists - may get something out of it, but I wouldn’t rush if there’s something else you’d rather see instead.