Irrational Man

August 29, 2015
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Irrational Man' (2015)
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Irrational Man' (2015)

“Our time, said Max Scheler, is the first in which man has become thoroughly and completely problematic to himself.” The line comes from William Barrett’s Irrational Man (1958), a book often credited with introducing Existentialist philosophy to an American audience. I have a well-thumbed paperback, and so does Woody Allen – one imagines.

In Allen’s Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a renowned professor of philosophy who has come to teach at the small campus of Braylin. We are told, time and again, how brilliant Abe is, but he is suffering from depression dressed up as “an existential crisis”, brought about by the state of the world and his futile efforts to affect positive change. His only consolation is to keep swigging whiskey from a hip flask.

Abe’s Weltschmerz exerts a powerful romantic appeal on science professor, Rita Richards (Parker Posey), and grade-A student, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone). Apparently there’s nothing sexier than a brooding, swarthy, pot-bellied philosopher with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Rita is not even discouraged by the discovery that Abe has been impotent for the past year. She knows, as he says, “it’s not a physical thing”, but a symptom of his self-torturing cogitations.

Rita is is eager to escape a loveless marriage, while Jill’s boyfriend, Roy, is one of those squeaky-clean, super bland types that turn up regularly in Allen’s movies, providing contrast for Abe’s dark and dangerous persona. Although Jamie Blackley’s Roy may be devoted to Jill, he is utterly boring. While protesting how much she loves her boyfriend, she is soon throwing herself at Abe, who stoically resists.

The resistance is all a bit of a tease, as Jill and Abe are inseparable. She makes little effort to disguise her infatuation to either Roy, or her parents, who are both music professors.

The turning point comes when Jill and Abe are sitting in a café, and overhear a woman telling her friends how she is about to lose custody of her daughter because of a corrupt, unethical judge. Suddenly a switch is thrown in Abe’s head. He realises he has a mission in life – an opportunity for action rather than reflection. His mission is to kill this Judge Spangler (an allusion to Spengler, who wrote The Decline of the West?) allowing the anonymous woman a fair hearing, and ridding the world of a villain.

Almost immediately, he cheers up. His impotence and gloominess vanish, and he begins the long-delayed affair with Jill, while also sleeping with Rita. His challenge now is to commit “the perfect crime” – an ambition more in keeping with a pulp criminal than a philosophy lecturer. His rationale is that he is acting in a highly moral way, to correct an injustice.

The rest of the story is concerned with Abe’s plans for committing murder, and the consequences. I can’t say any more without revealing the plot.

Naturally he turns to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for inspiration, sharing Raskolnikov’s belief that murder may be justified if the purpose is a worthy one. He might have paused to reflect that matters didn’t turn out well for Raskolnikov, but for Abe the idea of murder is linked with a joyous re-entry into the stream of life. By this one act he feels he may bring meaning to his otherwise pointless existence. From considering the “problem of evil” in relation to Heidegger and the Nazis, he obtains first-hand experience of evil’s energising qualities.

By Allen’s up-and-down standards, Irrational Man ranks as one of his more engaging recent efforts, with enough suspense to hold us to the end. The problem, as usual, is the dialogue, which remains horribly stiff and contrived. I’ve often wondered how a director of such obvious intelligence manages to produce scripts that sound as if they were written in a second language. It may be that Allen is so eager to finish each project and move on to the next, that he makes little attempt to refine the dialogue to make it sound more natural. By focussing on the ideas behind the story he allows every character to become a mere piece on the director’s chessboard.

This has the secondary effect of rendering his characters “thoroughly and completely problematic” to the viewer. Whatever magnetism Abe exerts on Jill and Rita, he remains an unpleasant, self-obsessed bore. For a famous intellectual his philosophical allusions are painfully crass. The nadir is a conversation with Jill in which he begins: “Simone de Beauvoir once posited, quite correctly..”

As for Jill, she comes across as a highly-educated airhead, whose studies have made no impression on an immature, petit bourgeois view of life. She is, incidentally, another of Allen’s young heroines who feels an irresistible attraction to an older man. One sympathises with the actors trying to animate these roles.

The fact that the movie ends with a triumph of normality over Abe’s Übermensch fantasies, may be interpreted as a sign of Allen’s pessimism, or simply cynicism. The disjunction is exacerbated by a score that continually beats out a few bars of “I’m in with the In Crowd” on jazz piano. It’s a peculiar soundtrack for an existential crisis.

Irrational Man
Written & directed by Woody Allen
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips
USA, rated M, 94 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 29th August, 2015.

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