Irrational Man, film review: Murder most breezy in a Woody Allen comedy with bite

(12A) Woody Allen, 95 mins. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey

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Irrational Man is one of Woody Allen's most disconcerting films of recent times – a very dark story told in a breezy and playful way.

With its jazzy soundtrack and Darius Khondji's richly coloured cinematography of autumnal Rhode Island, the film at first seems like a typical slither of a late Allen comedy. True, the main character Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a world-weary philosophy professor who has hit rock bottom ("Zabriskie Point") in his life but, at least at first, his angst is played for laughs. He has a reputation as a womaniser. He talks earnestly about Kant and Heidegger but tells the class he is teaching that "philosophy is verbal masturbation".

Abe is so full of anomie that he can't even get it up for lovely Rita (Parker Posey), the married academic who throws herself at him. He develops a friendship with precocious young student Jill (Emma Stone) but, at first, this is strictly platonic. Only after he takes up the challenge of committing the perfect murder – one he is sure will benefit humanity and won't be traced back to him – does his old sap return. Irrational Man moves along at such a jaunty pace that it takes a while to realise there are very few jokes here. Stone gives a vivacious performance, while Posey is in fine comic groove as the married woman desperate for anything approaching excitement. Phoenix, meanwhile, brings enough crumpled charm to his role to atone for Abe's chronic self-pity.

The same story Allen tells could have been made as a small-town tragedy or film noir. Instead, Allen keeps the tone light. He is still the most self-referential of film-makers. There are plenty of echoes of his earlier features, most notably Crimes and Misdemeanours. At times, the flippancy is grating. It is as if the director knows from bitter experience that audiences will recoil if he takes himself too seriously and so tries to package one of his most pessimistic films as a romcom.

Even so, Irrational Man is an Allen movie with unexpected depth and bite.