In front of and behind the camera, writer, director and actor Woody Allen has lovingly cultivated the persona of a neurotic, insecure, anxious and self-absorbed voyeur of the frail human condition, writes Damon Smith

In Irrational Man, the film-maker returns to dramatic canon after the froth and frippery of yesteryear’s Magic In The Moonlight, reuniting with leading lady Emma Stone for a spry tale of trial, retribution and murder most torrid.

It’s a rematch made in mediocrity because for all its crisp verbal acrobatics and occasional flourishes, this modern day mystery lacks a killer instinct.

Lead characters are sketched lightly and we struggle to tether a strong emotional bond to any of the players as they pontificate on the morality of doling out justice to the wicked and corrupt.

Anguished philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at the New England college campus of Braylin in the midst of an existential crisis. Fellow members of staff expect Abe to inject “some Viagra into the philosophy department” and ruffle faculty feathers.

Abe’s disenchantment with his life of teaching and political activism percolates in rambling lessons to wide-eyed students. “If you learn nothing else from me, you should learn that philosophy is verbal masturbation,” he informs his class plainly.

At this low ebb, Abe casually welcomes the amorous overtures of fellow professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), whose marriage to her husband Paul (Robert Petkoff) has stagnated. He also intoxicates perky student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), to the chagrin of her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley).

Emma Stone

Emma Stone

Sitting in a diner one afternoon, Abe and Jill overhear a tearful conversation in an adjacent booth about an unfeeling judge, who is needlessly wrenching apart happy families. Abe is enraged and resolves to reinvigorate his humdrum existence by taking the life of Judge Spangler (Tom Kemp).

Committing the perfect murder should be simple for a celebrated man of learning; eluding the long arm of the law might be trickier. Irrational Man explores Allen’s lifelong fascination with philosophy.

Characters wrestle tirelessly with questions of free will, destiny and humanity, which might get the writer-director’s juices flowing, but hardly sets our pulses racing.

Sporting an impressive belly for the role, Phoenix wallows in his character’s ennui and struggles to generate enough sparks of on-screen chemistry with Stone to convince us that she would fall for his morose academic.

Plotting is linear and Allen makes clear his feelings on personal vengeance in the film’s disappointing and telegraphed final reckoning.