At the start of Woody Allen's campus comedy Irrational Man, caddish professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) drives up to a new school that's 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 where a young beauty pursues an old crank.
Here, the ingénue is Jill (Emma Stone), the impressionable daughter of two academics, already fixed up with a preppy twerp (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?
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."
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. But Abe is such a soul-sucker that Allen shifts gears: Abe doesn't deserve Jill. Yet Jill deserves him, a little, for projecting wisdom and depth on his drunkenness.
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's finally smartened up -- a little -- right when everyone's written him off.