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'Irrational Man' review: Woody Allen's 50th feature not his most inspired

Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene

Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Irrational Man." Credit: Sabrina Lantos

'Irrational Man" marks the 50th feature film from Woody Allen as a writer or director, and it will surprise no one that the master, at 79, is repeating himself. "Irrational Man," which centers on a murder, covers much the same territory as 1989's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and 2005's "Match Point." Its quintessentially Allenesque characters discuss French philosophy and Russian literature. Here's another motif that may ring a bell: The movie features a middle-age man who sleeps with a beautiful girl less than half his age.

Now all that's out of the way -- how's the movie? "Irrational Man" is quite good. It's another of Allen's busywork films, the kind he seems to dash off, with astonishing ease, between masterpieces like "Match Point" and near-masterpieces like 2011's "Midnight in Paris." Its obvious weakness, an overall sense of familiarity, is easy to overlook thanks to one of the better casts Allen has assembled in recent years.

It's a small cast, essentially just three actors, led by an intense Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor with a rock-star reputation. Expectations are high when he takes a post at little Braylin College in Rhode Island, but Abe is spiraling into despair. He's paunchy, listless and near-suicidal.

That's catnip to certain women, and two quickly show up at his door. One is an unhappily married professor (a terrific and very moving Parker Posey), the other a bright-eyed student, played by the always-radiant Emma Stone.

A random occurrence leads Abe to concoct a dark plan with shades of Camus and Dostoyevsky -- the murder of a total stranger. The idea invigorates him, and soon Abe is back to his old self, intellectually and even sexually. Whether Abe's crime is perfect, however, remains to be seen.

"Irrational Man" isn't Allen's most original or inspired film, but it's engaging throughout and peppered with fine moments. Allen may be stealing from himself, but at least he's stealing from one of the best.

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