Any time a new Woody Allen film arrives, fans of the 79-year-old writer-director have something to look forward to.
That’s especially true of the past decade. Late-career gems “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine” were among the annual Allen projects.
His latest, a belabored dark comedy called “Irrational Man,” isn’t among the old master’s better work. It’s short on amusement. The life-changing act at the story’s epicenter is tough to swallow. But this wry, bleak tale of a boozy college professor who slumps into Rhode Island to teach summer classes has qualities that Allen followers will recognize and enjoy.
Joaquin Phoenix leads the cast as Abe Lucas, a disillusioned philosophy professor who’s fallen just short of skid row. Abe drinks and drives his way onto the campus of Braylin College. In the classroom, he tells students that philosophy — the study of the meaning of life — is meaningless. Which means, at least in the sad professor’s muddled mind, that his writing and teaching mean nothing.
Through dialogue spoken by Abe and other characters, Allen’s script quickly tells the unhappy back story for Braylin’s new professor. Abe once was an idealist, a passionate young man who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty doing good deeds in faraway lands. But the results of his do-gooding always disappointed him.
Now a middle-aged shell, the depressed Abe barely goes through the motions. Whiskey in the flask that’s always by his side numbs him to the purposelessness of life.
With Abe, Allen creates maybe the driest of his dozens of comic misanthropes. When Rita, an attractive science professor played by Parker Posey, invites Abe into the house she shares with her conveniently absent husband, he says, “Some other time.”
Uncharacteristically, Abe notices that one of his students, Emma Stone’s Jill, is smarter than the average co-ed. After class, he compliments Jill’s original ideas and the daring she shows in disagreeing with him.
Jill exhibits the passion and curiosity Abe has so completely lost. Stone’s performance as this vibrant, blooming young woman enlivens the film to the point of owning it. Of course, Jill develops a crush on her malcontent professor. Her moth-to-a-flame attraction to Abe is among the script’s better satire, a spin on the old women-love-unobtainable-bad guys story.
Playing Rita, former queen of indie film Posey (“Party Girl,” “Dazed and Confused,” “The Daytrippers”) also extracts the most from Allen’s writing. “You need a muse,” the tenacious Rita tells the reluctant Abe. Rita is the movie’s other aching middle-aged character, but she, unlike Abe, isn’t unhinged from reality.
Meanwhile, Abe is another of Phoenix’s gallery of troubled outsiders. Some of these archetypes — such as the disastrously alcoholic Freddie Quell in “The Master” and the pill-addicted Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” — are better than others. Abe is a lesser troubled outsider.
Regardless of the seen-it-before aspects of Phoenix in the Abe role, Allen’s reeling plot machinations do more to undermine the actor’s performance and the movie. Abe’s extreme behavior sends the whole thing off a cliff.
The big audience that found “Midnight In Paris” will not find “Irrational Man,” but Allen completists will savor the movie’s brighter moments and leave the rest.