Irrational Man (2015)

Irrational Man (2015)
  • Time: 96 min
  • Genre: Drama | Mystery
  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey


On a small town college campus, a philosophy professor in existential crisis gives his life new purpose when he enters into a relationship with his student.


  • Though Woody Allen’s film centers upon a professor of philosophy — the epitome of rationality — it’s titled Irrational Man. Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) shows how carrying the rational to its extreme becomes madness. Reason should not abandon humanity and morality.
    Allen introduces that theme when Abe cites — and counters — Kant’s argument that in the perfect world nobody should lie. If the gestapo ask if you’re hiding Anne Frank you have to tell the truth. Otherwise you’re opening a universe of lies. Abe overrides Kant here. Philosophy has to be subordinated to the harsh realities of life. Theory is insufficient to making the world a better, more responsible place. You have to trust your gut response — the visceral level of your humanity — over any philosophic theory.
    This truth his student/lover Jill (Emma Stone) intuits when she slowly comes to realize her Abe killed Judge Spangler. Despite her love for Abe and her equal disgust for what she has heard about the custody lawyer, she realizes Abe’s guilt and his need to accept the blame to save the innocent suspect’s life. Her emotional commitment to Abe is subordinated to her moral reflex, which Kant and the make-your-own-life Existentialists spurn. Spangler’s name shimmeringly evokes Spengler, whose Decline of the West Spangler and Abe come to personify: an indulgent self-serving abuse of social responsibility.
    The two women in Lucas’s present bed-life are in telling disciplines. Rita (Parker Posey) is a chemist, who has an immediate animal attraction to Abe — even before meeting him — and briefly enjoys his phallic/spiritual revival. When she guesses his possible guilt she laughs it off with him. Even if he is guilty, she will leave her husband to run off to Europe with Abe. Rita is the learned animal acting on animal instinct and body chemistry.
    Jill plays classical piano and is the daughter of two Music profs. She represents social and cultural tradition, harmony and the discipline of classical music. It’s outside her piano lesson that Abe tries to kill her and falls down his own shaft. Rita is a prof, world-, marriage- and profession-weary, but Jill is still a student, earnest, courageous before the frightening world opening before her. Her gut response is a moral one, where Abe’s was a coldly analytic (i.e., theoretical philosophy) one that gave him a new zest for life — at the cost of another’s death. That book won’t balance. It proves the emptiness of Existentialism.
    Jill’s moral backbone reflects in the ending. At the amusement park she hopes Abe won’t think she’s “practical” for choosing a little flashlight for her prize. That little machine of light saves her life when Abe slips on it in his attack. Her gut reflex of morality — the assumption of man’s essential goodness — makes her the embodiment of liberal humanism, more positive than the modern Europeans, however suspect in Republican America.
    Allen’s recurring use of The Ramsay Lewis Trio’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” contrasts to Jill’s disciplined harmonies. The theme recalls Abe’s characterization as an outsider, not just as an orphan, drunk and womanizer, but a misfit even among the university’s collective faculty of misfits. This jazz is loose, improvisational, yet a steady repetition of its own phrasing. Most significantly, throughout the turmoil in Abe’s and Jill’s minds and hearts, throughout the danger of science and reason overriding morality and humanity, the jazz plays on with the sociables partying, laughing and clapping (on the recording). As Nero fiddled when Rome burned our intellectuals exercise their abstruse theories, indulging themselves, while the world order crumbles. Analytic philosophy may be, as Abe teaches, verbal masturbation but the potential inhumanity of the European philosophers is far more damaging to others.
    In dramatizing the improper extension of philosophic theory into murder Allen follows Hitchcock’s classic Rope. But where Hitchcock kept a taut connection between theory and deed, between a word and a murder, to the extent of limiting his shots to the 10-minute length of a film reel, Allen plays with a much looser narrative and style. Sill, his touch is everywhere rigorous. When Abe tells Jill he has a new vitality (thanks to his resolve to kill the judge), Allen keeps them both in medium shot, on the right third of a screen full of well-dressed civilized folks attending Jill’s recital. The imminent murder — and the hero’s restoration of spirit and zest for life — contrast to the formal image of this setting.
    This film plays against Allen’s earlier exploration of the morality of a murder, Crimes and Misdemeanors. There the murderer gets away with it and the good rabbi goes blind. There the nebbish loses the girl; here he recovers her. There is no justice in the younger Allen’s take on our amoral universe. But here the little flashlight gives us a happy ending. But wait. The final justice is not due to any overriding principle of justice. no moral order in God’s creation. No, it’s a silly accident over a silly like plastic flashlight. The happy ending is a transparent consolation.
    The earlier victim (Anjelica Huston) is far more sympathetic than Spangler, the corrupt custody judge. But her murder was arranged by her endangered lover, to serve his interest. Abe acts in an ostensibly more selfless manner — until his plan revives his spirit and love of life. The present narrative structure is not as complex, nor the themes and characters as roundly developed, as in the earlier film. But this is still a brilliant exercise in logic, in moral philosophy and in storytelling that most 40 year olds would be proud to have pulled off.
    There’s a minor comic theme running through this film, a kind of fan dance that Allen seems to be doing with the critics. He mines the plot with enough jocular echoes of his own recent life to tempt them not to look — or, heaven forfend, even to think — beyond them. The prof has an affair with a much younger student — though here the prof deflects the girl’s intentions for a considerable time, until his ill-regained energies betray him. He also plays the mentor figure in the relationship, considered ambivalent since Plato’s vision and still a shadow across Allen’s 20-year (!) marriage. Then, too, the villain his hero kills is a corrupt judge who has proved heartless in his judgment on a child custody case. Remind you of anything?
    On the one hand Allen shows how theories have to be inflected to accommodate the complexities of real life, especially humanity and the need for a moral compass. On the other he tosses in these playful nods at his own life to see if his critics can transcend their own biases and predispositions to grapple with his larger themes.
    Many have failed. Several columnists have complained that Woody is aging gracelessly, self-indulgently, as he replays his creepy December-June romance, and that his films are dull and repetitious. To them I have two responses. (i) This is as thoughtful, stylish, intellectually rigorous and moving a film as we’ve had this year. And funny to boot. (ii) Isn’t it wonderful that even at 80, once a year our old friend Woody drops by to engage with us and to talk about what’s on his mind now. For such relief, much thanks.

  • (Rating: ☆☆ ½ out of 4)

    This film is mildly recommended.

    In brief: There’s too much irrational thought in Mr. Allen’s script as he steals from himself and is unable to differentiate between his many good ideas from the bad.

    GRADE: B-

    Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s latest film about committing the perfect crime, is an intriguing but ultimately disappointing rehash of his earlier films. His variations on a theme seem to be commonplace these days as his latest offering takes similar material from his great films (like Crimes and Misdemeanors), good ones (like Match Point), or misguided efforts (like Snoop). The director continues to be prolific and soul-searching, even at the age of 79. His films endlessly debate the existence of evil over good, chance over destiny, moral ambiguity over conscience, with humor, or in this case, with none. Irrational Man lobs these themes back and forth, with style and confidence, but the film just does not develop the necessary details in its narrative and characters to make it riveting drama.

    In fact, Mr. Allen’s film can be summed up in this pointed question: Does an evil act truly remain evil if its end result is good? It’s an interesting but flawed hypothesis for an interesting and flawed film. One doesn’t have to think real hard to make a sound conclusion. Mr. Allen should have. His script is in need of more work.

    The actors are all fine, even if their characters are not all well defined. Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, an alcoholic angst-ridden philosophy professor, newly hired at a quaint preppy New England college. His reputation precedes him and it is not long before he has women lapping at his door. Two such conquests are a colleague named Rita (played by Parker Posey) and his impressionable young student, Jill (Emma Stone). Both are instantly attracted to this pot-bellied bad boy for some incomprehensible reason. Giving strong support are Jamie Blackley as Jill’s smitten boyfriend and, in a small but noticeable role, and Sophie von Haselberg as one of Jill’s eccentric friends.

    Existentialism shrouds this film as Abe changes his life’s direction through a premeditated decision. Yet the biggest irrational flaw I had with the film was not so much that specific act and its consequences, but his self-destructive deeds prior to that action which seemed readily acceptable behavior within a college community (openly guzzling booze from a flask on campus, playing a game of Russian Roulette at a party, bedding your student…Yet there are no red flags for dismissal?) Totally unrealistic.

    That said, Abe’s cynical view of the world clouds his reason (and the director’s) and leads him to ponder the thrill of the kill. At this point, the film moves along briskly and Allen’s dialog is clever enough to entertain, although it approaches purple prose in its heavy-handed use of voiceovers. The director also relies on “irrational” plot contrivances rather than realistic turns of events to further the action, resulting in a less-than-satisfying ending.

    With all of its intellectual rants of Kant, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, its influence of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and a little of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Woody Allen’s Irrational Man never successfully brings all of its engaging elements together. As Abe so aptly states in one of his lectures to his class, “Philosophy is mental masturbation.” So is this movie: It’s a lot of foreplay without much of a climax, leaving you wanting more.

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  • An airiness masks the dark tidings of Woody Allen’s latest feature, Irrational Man. Like its jazz-infused soundtrack, this intellectually saturated film is both jagged and insinuating as it grapples with a theme that Allen explored in the superior Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point and the barely redeemable Cassandra’s Crossing: the morality of evil.

    “I’m Abe Lucas…and I took a human life. Not in battle or self-defense, but I made a choice, I believed in it, and I saw it through.” Indeed, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) does not kill for those aforementioned reasons or for love or money, but rather because he believes he is doing good; that by taking direct action, he has made the world “a better place by an infinitesimal fraction.” There’s a yawning divide between thoughts and deeds, as he himself knows, yet this philosophy professor is ignorant to the fact that murder is murder and reasoning such an act away can only weaken one’s moral code.

    The act resuscitates Abe, who arrives blanketed in nihilism to assume his assignment to a small Rhode Island college. His reputation precedes him: he’s an alcoholic with a history of sleeping with his students, he suffered a breakdown because his wife left him for his best friend. Or was it because his best friend was killed in Iraq? In any case, this paunchy schlub with the air of a stoner is perceived as a brooding god by the student body. One student body in particular, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), has an instant fixation upon this man of mystery whose declaration that philosophy is nothing but “verbal masturbation” or that “Emotionally, I was at Zabriskie Point” only serve to fuel her romantic fantasies.

    Jill is keen on saving this lost soul with the power of her love whilst professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey) flings herself at Abe as if he was the life raft to save her from drowning in her unhappy marriage. He resists both their advances, partly because to succumb would be wrong but also because his existential funk has paralysed him into passivity. And then he overhears a conversation – a woman in a diner is distraught over likely losing custody of her children because the judge is firmly in her ex-husband’s corner. What if Abe could solve this woman’s problem by getting rid of this corrupt judge? No one would ever suspect him, Abe thinks, and wouldn’t it at least right one wrong in this world?

    The film’s first half, dominated by circular musings on morality, choice, and the randomness of fate, can come off as interminable claptrap, what with quotes from Kant, Kierkegaard and their ilk bandied about with abandon. Yet that groundwork bears fruit in the film’s second half as its themes blink into the light.

    “Life has the meaning you give it,” one character says in the film, and that line speaks to the minefields that are traversed by the very nature of living. Reality versus perception, the mutability of thought versus the permanence of action, good versus evil. Yet the desire to do good can foster evil, and isn’t escaping into fantasy more enjoyable than confronting harsh realities?

    Even when one realises that Irrational Man is a noir at heart (the superb Posey could be any woman thwarted of happiness from any 1930s or 1940s noir), the overall lightness of tone is still an unsettling contrast. Despite some of its missteps (the establishing first act, the dueling voiceovers), this is actually one of Allen’s more focused offerings. Phoenix is both creepy and charismatic, and the wonderfully expressive Stone impresses as the wide-eyed innocent who comes to realise the depths of her hero’s (ir)rationality.

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