Arts Review, Movies

Irrational Man

Irrational Man featured image

Woody Allen, director & script

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Abe Lucas), Emma Stone (Jill Pollard), Parker Posey  (Rita), Jamie Blackley (Roy)

Woody Allen may be pushing 80 but his willingness to push boundaries hasn’t abated. His new film Irrational Man is a shocking little fable in which Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) a philosophy professor, who has so little interest in his existence that he plays Russian Roulette at a party, turns his life around after deciding that he’s going to commit a perfect murder. Suddenly, Professor Lucas, whose reputation as a philanderer preceded him to the small New England college he’s just joined, is able to have sex with Rita (Parker Posey), another prof who has been pursuing him, and begin to consider entering into a physical relationship with his favourite student, Jill (Emma Stone), who has a crush on him. That’s quite a turn-around but are we supposed to be pleased that a depressed individual found renewed life by planning a crime?

Allen is having fun with ethics and morality in this film—and what  makes it doubly provocative is that he is someone who is despised by many for crimes he may or may not have committed in the past. The concept of the film—irrational man–is that humans may pretend to be rational but they’re not. The film’s title is taken from Husserl but also from William Barrett, who wrote the first major book on existentialism in English in 1958. I bet that the young Woody Allen read Barrett looking for an explanation for the most famous murder in existential philosophy, the unmotivated one committed by Meursault in Camus’ L’Etranger (The Outsider).

Here, Professor Lucas kills someone who, in his opinion, deserves to die. We see the crime being committed but never learn much about the dead man or what happens to the people he’s purportedly helped through the murder. Instead, we’re invited to watch as this previously disaffected academic, fully as out of synch with his society as Meursault was in colonial Algeria, revives his spirit through inflicting death. By the end of the film, he’s so enamoured of his life and so indifferent to anyone else that he’s willing to kill someone he supposedly loves.

Irrational Man
has the quirky charm of an old fashioned short story. Allen’s main characters are recognizable types: Lucas, the mysterious macho professor with secrets in his past; Rita, the slightly aging woman who will do anything to get him; Jill, the young beautiful college girl who loves him not wisely but well; and Roy, her discarded “immature” boy friend. While the first half of the film’s story is played out like a college sex comedy, the second (and better) half has a murder plot that is bound to have one too many twists.

Woody Allen’s new film is uneven—but that’s normal for him. Joaquin Phoenix is able to generate interest as Professor Lucas—his is a fine performance and he’s ably supported by the always charming Emma Stone as Jill and a slightly less quirky Parker Posey as Rita. Irrational Man is not going to be a huge Woody Allen hit but it will satisfy his fans, outrage his enemies and perhaps draw an audience looking for adult fare during the hottest summer months.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
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