Irrational Man online movie review - Philosophy prof kills judge to renew life spirit
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.
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.