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[photo: Sony Pictures]

With 48 movies, director Woody Allen has a work ethic like none other. That’s roughly a movie a year over the span of over 40 years. There has always been the great ones (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters), the crowd pleasers (Midnight in Paris, Vicky Christina Barcelona), mediocre ones (Whatever Works, Everyone Says I Love You), the duds (Hollywood Ending, Curse of the Jade Scorpion), and the just plain forgettable ones (Melinda & Melinda, You’ll Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). His newest film Irrational Man is a good return to his darker films.

Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at a Rhode Island college to teach philosophy, and is in both an intellectual and personal rut. A once beaming activist who volunteered for humanitarian causes Abe has become a curmudgeon nihilist who tells his students “much of philosophy is verbal masturbation” on the first day of class. Welcoming him to campus is a married professor named Rita (Parker Posey) who all but throws herself at him. Rita desperately hopes Abe can rescue her from a passionless marriage. Abe also meets a bright student named Jill (Emma Stone), and they quickly become friends. Jill becomes enamored with Abe, much to the dismay of her boyfriend, played by Jaime Blackley (If I Stay). Becoming close with both women initially doesn’t get Abe out of his creative rut until he overhears a stranger’s conversation while at a diner with Jill.

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[photo: Sony Pictures]

The conversation leaves Abe inspired, and it in turn sets off a chain of events that become a matter of life and death. The existential material feels familiar here, and it’s nothing Allen hasn’t explored in his career already. The theme of ‘how to commit the perfect murder’ which was done so perfectly in his classic films Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Match Point, is revisited again. Here it still manages to feel fresh. Allen has always been fascinated with conversational philosophical and moral debates between his actors, and it’s nicely shown in the script.

The casting choices are perfect. It’s surprising Phoenix, and Posey haven’t worked together previously, let alone in an Allen film. Phoenix is probably one of the finest actors of his generation, and gives a terrific performance as the ‘irrational’ existentialist who can’t quite manage to control the dangerous situation he finds himself in. Phoenix has always been an actor who communicates so much emotional turmoil with just a subtle look, and it works well with Allen’s darkly comical tone. It’s a shame how underused Posey has become in films today, and she handles Allen’s dialogue like a pro. Look for Posey to show up in more of Allen’s films since she’s just been cast as a supporting player in his new film which will come out in 2016.  As with Mia Farrow and Scarlett Johansson, Emma Stone is quickly becoming the new creative muse for Allen. With last years Magic in the Moonlight this is the second in a row with the director. Stone’s wide-eyed college intellectual is a good match for Phoenix.

Something tells me this outing will find itself slipping to the mediocre entry of Allen’s canon for most fans of his films. The last act is a little too tidy in the resolution, but the pay off feels refreshingly unexpected. While it’s not nearly as strong as his best work it’s still worth checking out for any lover of his films.