Sipping on a beer before the film, I overheard a wonderfully Allenesque conversation – words that he might have given to a character: ‘J’ai jamais fait du sport, je suis plutot intello’ (I’ve never been sporting, I’m more of an intellectual).
This was said without a trace of irony, I think I managed to stifle a giggle. The guy probably was an intellectual, but to utter this phrase in the Anglo-Saxon world would be an open invitation to savage derision (happily, it was uttered in Belgium). This raised a worrying question in my mind – there appear to be two camps when it comes to Woody Allen, those who are generally in the ‘he is so over-rated’ camp and those who are ‘devotees’. Am I an intello, who doesn’t like sport? All I can say is that to one of these questions, my answer is a resounding ‘Yes’.
To those in the haters camp, I might be considered incapable of critical judgement when it comes to Allen’s films. I would have to query this a little, but will confess that while I have found some of his films unsettling and some not quite as good as others, I have always found them interesting and I always get some sort of insight from them – I even liked Melinda and Melinda (2004).
Irrational Man is a reference to a book of the same name by William Barret on existentialism; the film also leans on Allen’s fascination with the novels of Dostoyevsky, in this instance Crime and Punishment. When it comes to films that address existential questions, I would place Allen somewhere between Bergman and the director of The Fast and the Furious 3, let’s say near the top. So, if this is your bag, you are in for a fun night at the cinema.
The eponymous irrational man is Abe, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a philosophy professor who is resigned to the pointlessness of existence; I say pointlessness, because he has already transcended meaninglessness and despair. Refreshingly, Allen has allowed Phoenix to play an angst-ridden man without forcing him to adopt Woody-like mannerisms – other actors have been less able to resist.
Abe’s arrival on campus is widely anticipated – Rita (Parker Posey), a bored chemistry professor, who has been serially unfaithful to her often-absent husband, is particularly looking forward to meeting the new professor and potential conquest. The other main character, Jill (Emma Stone), is a student who sparks Abe’s interest with an essay where she heavily critiques one of his books.
Jill comes to idolize Abe, and fails to see that ‘he’s a wreck and he smells’. Jill is not the most interesting character, especially compared to the sassy Rita. It would be difficult to see Jill’s attraction to Abe, if it weren’t for her insipid and clinging boyfriend. Abe’s capitulation to Jill’s advances is another aspect of his moral decline.
Abe and Jill overhear a discussion in a diner, where a women tells her friends about how a judge has given the custody of her child to her ex-husband who has shown little or no interest in his child to date – she has been impoverished by the legal process and sees no point in an appeal, especially since the judge seems unlikely to move and is an acquaintance of the errant father. Abe decides that he is going to intervene and murder the judge. Initially, he verifies that the judge is the despicable person he appears to be, then he starts to follow his movements and plan his crime. Abe is liberated by his action and feels no guilt afterwards, just a new found love for life. Predictably, things start to go very wrong; when Jill discovers what he’s done, she urges Abe to turn himself in.
I can’t say that I enjoyed this film as much as other Allen work; at times it felt like there had been a lot of cutting and pasting from earlier films. There were a couple of brilliant moments, for example when Abe demonstrates how Russian roulette works to a bunch of optimistic, preppy students, but on the whole, there weren’t many laughs and this can definitely be classed as one of Allen’s darker films, alongside Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).
Feeling nostalgic for cheerier works, I turned to Hannah and her Sisters (1986), my preferred take on existence where – after dabbling with various religions – Mickey (Allen) finds meaning through the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup (1933), concluding: “What if the worst is true, what if there is no God and you only go round once, and that’s it? Well don’t you want to be part of the experience? It’s not all a drag and I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never going to get and just enjoy it while it lasts. And afterwards, who knows…”
Is this a great Woody Allen? No, it is not, but ultimately he is still the best at this kind of stuff – maybe too comfortable with it, as I sometimes felt in this film. To pull off a work that explicitly addresses existentialist ideas with any aplomb requires skill – I wouldn’t place this movie (his 50th!) in the top ranking of his work to date; however, to my mind, 97 minutes in a cinema exploring existential ideas beats several evenings in reading Kierkegaard.