A Woody Allen film about a philosophy professor having an existential crisis: How could it go wrong? That it apparently did go wrong is evident in the way both critics and viewers have generally panned it. Allen’s last two films played for more than two months in our arthouse cinema. Irrational Man lasted a week.
Not surprisingly (because I’m an Allen fan), I enjoyed Irrational Man from beginning to end in spite of the bad reviews. As I’ve said before, a bad Woody Allen film is still better than most of the stuff out there. Not that I think Irrational Man is a bad film. On the contrary, I felt it was a fairly well-made film, with only Allen’s writing being somewhat suspect. The acting by Emma Stone, Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey was more than solid, with Stone being the standout. The jazz score was great and the cinematography was perfect for this kind of film.
Which gets us back to Allen’s writing. I can imagine many people finding Irrational Man tedious, implausible and overly contrived. This was no doubt a primary complaint of the critics. I won’t say I was riveted, but I was never bored, and Allen films are rarely believable or lacking in plot holes. But I happen to like the way Allen uses film to work through his obsession with the meaninglessness and futility of life, even if I rarely agree with his arguments.
In this case, we have a 40-year-old philosophy professor named Abe Lucas (Phoenix) who finds no meaning or joy in his life and thinks about ending it, even while a smart and beautiful student (Jill, played by Stone) hangs on his every word and tries to seduce him. Abe has tried to find a purpose in life by being an activist, but it all seems futile to him (note: one of the weakest parts of the film is Allen’s unconvincing depiction of this). Until one day he overhears a woman talking about an evil judge who has been bought off to make a decision which will ruin her life. It occurs to Abe that he could bump off the judge to avert this decision and no one would suspect him because he has no motive (as in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train).
Suddenly, Abe’s life has a purpose, a purpose which injects his life with the joy that has so long eluded him. For finally he is taking direct action to make the world a better place (by ridding it of a person who was making the world a worse place). Seeing such an act as immoral, as murder, is missing the big picture. Of course, Allen is not actually promoting such a worldview, but I’ll say no more about how the plot unfolds, other than to mention that Abe and Jill have a lot of fascinating (to me at least) philosophical discussions.