Woody Allen has a "thing" for philosophy – the more pessimistic the better – and in "Irrational Man" he presents Josquin Phoenix, who, unlike his name, when we first meet him shows little sign of rising from the ashes of a burn-out.
Trading on the reputation of his earlier writings he takes a job in an East Coast college, where he shows every sign of being an ageing adolescent – brilliant, alcoholic, depressive and disillusioned.
Enter a worldly wise woman colleague (Parker Posey) in mid life crisis, who is seeking escape from the precious and sterile life on campus – Spain, she thinks, might be exciting. They have an affair.
Meanwhile he is pursued by a beautiful, intelligent young woman, (Emma Stone) seeking more than her gentle supportive boy-friend can offer, and attracted by the brilliant, vulnerable academic.
They overhear, in a diner, a woman sharing her anger and frustration at how a judge is abusing his position to favour her ex-partner, and ruin her.
Phoenix decides that he has the chance to commit the perfect crime – he has no known connection to the judge yet has the opportunity to set things right by killing him. After a lifetime of empty words, he has the chance to act. As a messenger of death his life has meaning, and he begins to write and enjoy living again.
The crime occurs, and is the talk of the campus. Posey idly wonders, on the basis of Phoenix having held forth on perfect crimes, whether he might have been responsible. She shares her thoughts with Emma Stone, and his two lovers compare notes, with dialogue which could only have been written by Allen.
Many of Allen's themes – destiny, chance, moral dilemmas, younger women and neurotic older men – surface again in this film. A random event is the catalyst for changing everything.
As in "Match Point", we wonder, will the murderer get away with his crime?
Emma Stone investigates her suspicions, and puts herself in mortal danger.
The plot at this point is pure Hitchcock, set in a beautifully observed world of privileged intelligentsia – understated clothes, horse-riding, musical concerts, conversations as genteel contests.
There are flaws – some aspects of the plot are less than convincing, and the plot development at times is glacially slow. But the two women are superb in their roles – one palpably idealistic and yearning, the other world weary, yet both hopeful of finding magic and meaning.
This is Woody Allen without the laughter, in what is arguably one of his minor films. A cameo perhaps, but beautifully acted and well worth seeing.