Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a philosophy professor who has written extensively in his field to great acclaim, and is therefore much sought after to lecture at universities, as he has here, though his reputation precedes him, both good and bad. He is well known for his brilliant mind and unconventional take on his subjects, but also for his womanising and alcoholism which never quite overshadows his academic achievements. When he arrives on the campus, two women in particular are interested to meet him: fellow tutor Rita (Parker Posey), who is bored with her marriage and wants a fling with him, and Jill (Emma Stone), who is taken with his intellect but also his apparently dissolute lifestyle...
For Woody Allen, putting a different spin on the classics, especially classic literature, was never something to be shied away from, and he had tackled the themes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment before, most celebrated in Crimes and Misdemeanours. This time around he put an Alfred Hitchcock take on the material, specifically Rope, which featured a pair of bright students seduced by the idea that their intellect made them somehow superior to most of the people they shared the planet with, therefore it was their given right to exercise that authority by turning to murder. That story had been drawn from real life, and such a potent example of moral corruption that it was returned to often in the media.
Possibly because it was moral self-corruption that it proved so fascinating, that the potential killers had become so highly educated and privileged thanks to their opportunities to build upon their intelligence that all the good influences of their tutors had gone very far astray when it offered them a seriously deluded image of their own importance in their own minds. Intriguingly, Abe began the film as a typical Allen protagonist, in drama at any rate, his learning and awareness of the world no help when it came to dealing with the day to day interactions with his fellow people. He had often put this to work as a humorous conceit, but here had let his imagination explore how such a misfit mindset would be soured.
Abe is one of those cool lecturers who the students admire for his supposedly rebellious views on the matters they are studying ("Philosophy is verbal masturbation!") but manages to charm the staff for being looked up to for his writings, which apparently go deeper than his contemporaries, or a lot of them at any rate. However, what he doesn't look is dangerous, aside from being a danger to himself, though that is precisely what he is, because when he puts his own philosophies to the test by carrying out a crime, as much to see if he could do it as it was to get rid of a person he regarded as inferior to himself, this searching his own thoughts and rationalising quickly turns to arrogance and odiousness born of a belief that he is capable of an act that hardly anyone would carry out as such an exercise.
As for the two women in his life, Rita appeals to him as an admirer, and as she is around his own age he has little reluctance to go to bed with her no matter that she is married, but Jill is an admirer too, as a pupil and his chance to mould her mind to a state that he is satisfied with in his capacity as her teacher. What he doesn't count on is that while the older Rita accepts him as he is, Jill is more of her own person and while she falls in love with him, she does so because she wants to improve him as much as he does her, a compunction not alien to her romantic rival either. Yet Abe would never entertain the thought of lecturing Rita, however gently, and we get the feeling that he is exploiting the younger woman since he feels that superiority, and that makes her more attractive. As you can see, Abe is not only a shabby, stimulating human being, he is an objectionable one too once you scratch the surface, and as an instance of the Hitchcock villain where they were barely aware of how twisted they were he was an interesting contribution. But this was not a thriller, and there were not many laughs, meaning it would be rather dry if you didn't want to tackle Irrational Man as a thinker.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.