The school bell is ringing, and Abe is in town. Abe is Joaquin Phoenix, and Woody Allen has sent the actor to begin a life as the new philosophy professor at Braylin College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Abe once wrote a book that everyone pretended to read, like “War and Peace,” but only a few did. Abe’s teaching theme seems to be about embracing the meaninglessness of life. Wake up.

In “Irrational Man,” we first meet the pot-bellied Abe drinking from a silver flask, as he hurls down the highway to his new gig, while listening to the Ramsey Lewis Trio playing Billy Page’s “The In Crowd.”

That happens to be my favorite jazz piece, and as it runs throughout the movie, like Tara’s theme, it saves it for me. I kept waiting for it to pop up again, so I could keep tapping my feet to keep me awake.

Is Abe real? Is this really going to be about a philosophy professor? Or do we get a fun movie about a con man? No such luck. Abe’s for real, complete with wrinkled shirt, rumpled jacket and loafers.everybody’s idea of a visiting professor with a cloud of mystery floating around his head, come to shake up the party.

The local women, teachers and wives, waitresses and a few guys are excited. It seems it’s been a while since a new fella has arrived.

One teacher mumbles as he passes, “I guess we’ll get a shot of Viagra back in the department.” With that pot belly?

That notion is dispelled when a promising young amber haired student drifts toward him, like a fragrant cloud of autumn smoke. Abe is polite and shuffling, but keeps her at arm’s length. This is not easy to do, because the student, Jill, is played by that cinematic cloud of fragrant autumn smoke, Emma Stone.

Abe soon discovers that his arms aren’t as long as he thought, and soon they’re giving each other CPR lessons in his cottage.

Then there’s the unhappy chemistry professor (Parker Posey, of all people) who appears at his door one night in the rain, with a 25-year-old bottle of Scotch. She’s always fun.

So this is going to be a light summer triangle comedy? No, Woody is going to fool us and give us a touch of Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” and a dash of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Don’t get excited. He only uses the central ideas. There’s none of the rich darkness, and only one breathtaking moment where someone will die and someone won’t. It’s a hokey finale that provokes laughter.

The movie comes alive, momentarily, when Abe and Jill, dining in a coffee shop, overhear a woman weeping about a corrupt judge who is ruining her life.

Abe perks up. Enter Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”

A perfect crime is suggested that involves orange juice and cyanide. That’s all I’m going to tell you.

Phoenix lost me long ago on the depressing “The Master,” and got me back again with his wonderful portrayal of the stoned Sam Spade-ish, L.A. private eye in “Inherent Vice.”

Now, we’ve broken up again. I will say he was very good in “Walking the Line.” Here, he just walks.

Parker Posey does the horny, smoldering middle-aged chemistry professor, a role better suited to Charlotte Rampling.

Emma Stone keeps hypnotizing me. I think that happens to all middle aged men who remember her as someone they had sex with in college, but really didn’t.

The only authentic character in the movie is Ethan Phillips, who plays Emma’s middle-class daddy. Good job, Ethan.

Woody’s next should be in the middle of the election year. We’ll need it.

J.P. Devine is a former actor.


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