'Irrational Man' (R)

Taken on its own, as a stand-alone dark comedy about existential angst, Irrational Man is a wobbly enterprise saddled by stilted dialogue and convenient contrivances. But view it as a Woody Allen film, and the plot thickens. The director’s persistence on cranking out a movie a year in order to keep himself busy (he turns 80 in December) has resulted, over the past two decades, in a lot of lazy, half-baked pictures that felt tossed-off and incomplete: Magic in the Moonlight, To Rome with Love, Melinda and Melinda – the list is long.

You have to go back to Midnight in Paris to find Allen working with a fresh conceit that didn’t feel recycled, and he will probably never top 2005’s Match Point, which remains the best film he’s made in the 21st century. Irrational Man falls somewhere in the middle — the script needs polishing, the dialogue is too on-the-nose and it covers familiar territory — but if you treat it as the latest chapter in Allen’s ongoing, unparalleled career, the movie gives you a lot to ponder.

For one: What movie did Joaquin Phoenix think he was acting in? His performance as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor at a small Rhode Island college who is paralyzed by existential angst — he can’t write, he can’t stop drinking and he can’t perform in bed — feels like it belongs in another, stranger film. Abe goes around quoting Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, spouts observations such as “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” and is prone to impulsive acts that hint at suicidal tendencies, such as a scene in which he plays Russian roulette with a loaded gun at a party in front of some horrified students, claiming that “50-50 odds is better than what you get in life.”

Unlike other actors who were cast as Allen’s surrogates in some of his previous films, Phoenix doesn’t try to imitate the filmmaker’s speech patterns or mannerisms. Instead, Phoenix heads out on his own, strange path (shades of I’m Still Here), embracing Abe’s less-appealing features — his pot belly, his ever-present flask, his constant worrying and moping — while making Allen’s familiar dialogue sound fresh. Abe is an odd, distant creature (Phoenix doesn’t allow us to get close), but there’s also something intriguing about him, too: You want to know what, if anything, awaits on the other side of all that pessimism.

That curiosity is, in part, what attracts two women to him: an undergraduate student, Jill (a winsome Emma Stone), and a fellow professor, Rita (Parker Posey, flinty and fiery, the opposite of the expected comic relief). The female characters are underwritten. Jill has a boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) and Rita is trapped in an unhappy marriage, and that’s about all we get about them other than the way in which they relate to Abe. They want to save him, each in their own way, but Abe is too preoccupied with Immanuel Kant and morals to give them his full attention.

And then, by accident or fate, Abe gets an idea. Irrational Man is only the fifth film Allen has shot in widescreen (cinematographer Darius Khondji gives the campus a lovely, sun-kissed aura), which is the first indication that there is something bigger afoot here than just another romantic triangle. This is another variation on Allen’s recurring exploration of ethics and how our actions sometimes have unexpected consequences. But instead of keeping the story bound to relationships, the filmmaker shoots for something larger here: What does it mean when the only way you can find purpose and direction in your life is by committing a heinous criminal act?

Allen haters — and they are legion — will find plenty to dig into. But to dwell on the age differences between Phoenix and Stone’s characters or any of the other instantly-identifiable trappings that have become easy targets misses what Allen is exploring here. Irrational Man is deeply flawed, and without Phoenix’s oddball energy, the movie might have turned out flat and dull. But the picture once again proves Allen’s best late-period work comes when he explores the darker corners of human instinct. “Put your assumptions aside and favor your experiences,” a reinvigorated Abe says late in the film. But what happens when those experiences are too awful to share with anyone?

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley.

Writer-director: Woody Allen.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 96 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.