Irrational Man sees Woody Allen get philosophical once again

Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man, written and directed by him, is typical of his style. There is the seeming banality and frustration of life set against bigger themes: questions and basic urges in the background. It is the little things and the fall guys who share the spotlight, while a glimmer of hope flickers in the gloom.

I like to sum up Allen’s outlook with one of his quotes about suffering: “How can I try to answer why six million Jews were allowed to die in Hitler’s Germany when I can’t even work out how to operate this can opener in my hand?”

In Irrational Man, a troubled philosophy professor, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), arrives at a new campus to start afresh. He has hit existential despair after his wife left him and his best friend was killed in Iraq. He has no zest for life any more, and has turned to drink, constantly sipping single malt from his hip flask. Yet he is a radical and popular lecturer, with various women being attracted to him. He falls in love with a student, Jill (Emma Stone).

The trigger that sparks his passion for life again, though, is an unlikely one. He overhears a troubled litigant saying she hopes the judge will get cancer or something equally grave. Research into this judge shows he is unpopular and has a string of unjust decisions to his name. Abe decides that the authentic, life-grabbing, “seize the day” thing to do is to kill this man to help the unfortunate woman. He convinces himself that it is a totally moral decision and plots the “perfect crime” by poisoning the man when out jogging.

Slowly, the clues add up and Jill confronts Abe. He then plots to kill her. But it all goes disastrously wrong when they struggle and he slips on a small flashlight he had won for her at a fairground show.

Within the class commentary we have a couple of glimpses of philosophy. There is Kierkegaard and the despair of free decision. There is also a critique of Kant’s moral categorical imperative (situations have to be taken into account). Added to this is existential angst, the need to make things real, personal and of the moment. Sartre’s
“Hell is other people”, which the film quotes, is shown to be untrue. What Allen does is show that, far from being a curse, other people are necessary in order for us to be human. Alterity, the relationship to “the other”, is bound up with our nature, our existence and our morality.

Abe’s existential urge, his carpe diem, is ultimately a selfish act that takes the life of another and opens the door to silencing others to save his own skin. The little flashlight trips up the man whose big ideas are rather small and silly. The really Big Ideas, meanwhile, are fundamental and long-lasting: they are a moral vein within the universe.

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (11/9/15)

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