Getting away with murder in a godless universe is a theme that has long compelled Woody Allen, from Crimes and Misdemeanors to Match Point. Allen sees this as a cosmic joke. And in Irrational Man, the story of an impotent, alcoholic philosophy professor (Joaquin Phoenix) who tries to rationalize homicide, Allen serves the comedy black and stinging hot.
Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, an educator who hates himself for leaving real-world activism in Darfur and New Orleans to teach a summer course in ethical strategies at Braylin, a fictional college in Rhode Island. The students romanticize Abe, especially Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), who finds her boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley), paling in comparison. Abe has a similar effect on Rita Richards (a slyly quirky Parker Posey), an unhappy faculty wife.
Alas, Abe can’t get it up, not until he and Jill overhear a conversation in a diner that involves a woman suffering a grave injustice. In a switch that owes as much to Hitchcock as to the great philosophers, Abe considers a crime of justice, not passion, to which he can’t be connected by motive.
To avoid spoilers, let me say that Allen has crafted a suspenseful mind-teaser that might feel too much like an intellectual exercise if Phoenix and Stone didn’t infuse it with raw humanity. The conceptual bubble Allen creates in Irrational Man is potent provocation built to keep you up nights.