At the start of Woody Allen's campus comedy Irrational Man, caddish professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) drives up to a new school that has already steeled itself for his arrival. "Of course, my reputation — a reputation — preceded me," admits Abe. Such defensiveness also applies to his tabloid-attacked director, who seems moderately aware of the risk in making yet another movie in which a young beauty pursues an old crank.
Here, the ingénue is Jill (Emma Stone), the impressionable daughter of two academics, already fixed up with preppy twerp Roy (Jamie Blackley). We know handsome Roy is toast when he willingly slips on an emasculating blue sweater Jill bought him for Christmas. By contrast, Abe, her philosophy professor, waddles around school in T-shirts that highlight his bulbous belly — he can't be tamed by a woman's good taste, and boy, isn't that a thrill?
Past Allen would put the joke on Roy for being unmanned by his intellectual superior, the triumph of brains over brawn. But Abe isn't the usual, quippy Allen hero. Phoenix is too much of a cynic for that — he's a true, barn-burning nihilist, not an urbanite grouch. Phoenix's Abe is a puffy alcoholic who would rather drown his neuroses in booze than analyze himself on a therapist's couch. He's sallow-faced and gravel-voiced, crafting his sentences with terse calculation rather than letting loose Alvy Singer's self-effacing verbal flood. As Jill swoons, "He could always cloud the issue with words."
In Irrational Man, the joke is on her for obsessing over this sad man. Finally, Allen is aware that his May-December romances are preposterous and naive. Women in his movies have always fallen for jerks, yet Allen believed that his male characters were worth it. (Even when he admits their flaws, he still thinks these guys have earned the devotion of Mariel Hemingway.) But Abe is such a soul-sucker that Allen shifts gears: Abe doesn't deserve Jill. Yet Jill deserves him, at least a little, for projecting wisdom and depth on his drunkenness. Forget Abe's rambling lectures on Kantian ethics — she really needs him to teach her to wise up about men.
As ever, Stone is commanded to be luminous. She's Hollywood's Miss Perfect, a box that's too small for her gifts. But occasionally, Stone at least hints at Jill's flaws — her idealism, for one, but that's about as damning as a job seeker saying that her biggest weakness is perfectionism. (At least it's a start.) Stone knows Jill is fascinated by Abe for reasons that don't add up. After Abe wrecks a party by playing Russian roulette, Stone bats her eyes and chirps, "He's so self-destructive, but he's so brilliant." Later, she blurts out the head-scrabbling, "He's very conservative in a kind of liberal way." Jill is playacting at being a grownup. When Abe takes her out for dinner, she tries out an older woman's pickup line: "I don't want to eat; I want to go to your place." Squint and it feels like you can see Allen shrugging: A genius can't help it if a girl finds him irresistible.
Allen has little respect for the hallows of higher education. He failed out of NYU, got expelled by the City College of New York, and promptly reframed himself as a self-taught boy wonder. His fictional New England college town is green and twee and rotting from boredom. Every house has either a wrap-around porch or a de Kooning, and every cocktail party is a time bomb of restless affairs and sour rumors.
Jill's classmates, mostly rich, are mediocre talents who will grow up to run the world — a truth that adds to Abe's despair — but he's not much better. Like them, he's been entrusted with power he hasn't earned. "Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation," he intones to Jill, taking a subtle joy in the sexual innuendo. It's hard to tell if Abe agrees he's a phony or if he's pretending to be vulnerable in order to manipulate women into throwing themselves on his pyre. "You need a muse," coos Jill's romantic rival Rita (Parker Posey), herself unhappily married to a fellow science professor. "I've never needed a muse before," he sighs, letting it linger like a challenge.
Yet Irrational Man isn't interested in a love triangle, especially when it's the overheated ladies who are acting nuts. (Though part of me wishes it were, just so we'd get more of Posey's pathetic, hungry wife and her floppy blouses.) Then, after a chance overheard conversation, the comedy entirely changes course and gives Abe a renewed purpose in life — one so wicked, it's better left as a surprise. Suddenly, the film's ethical debates have a purpose. Can something bad be good? Abe sees the question as a logic problem. Allen sees it more as a lark. Where the underrated Cassandra's Dream wrestled with guilt, Irrational Man asks guilt to dance. The movie is all sunshine and jaunty, almost desperate jazz. It works better than most of Allen's recent films because it's a trifle without pretense and because the director has finally smartened up — a little — right when everyone's written him off. Allen doesn't care enough about Abe to ask us to care about his soul. Instead, the audience's relationship to the film is the way a wiser Jill would treat Abe: If you know what little to expect, why not enjoy 90 minutes with a scoundrel?