Mark Reviews Movies

Irrational Man


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Tom Kemp

MPAA Rating: R (for some language and sexual content)

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 7/17/15 (limited); 7/22/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 21, 2015

Early into writer/director Woody Allen's Irrational Man, we get the thesis statement: "Philosophy is verbal masturbation." It's a good line. It connotes an exercise in self-indulgence, an exclusory activity, a fleeting act of satisfaction, and maybe even something that can become repetitive and tiresome. The character who says the line displays the benefits/pitfalls of the first three points regarding a life devoted to the examination of philosophy. The movie ends up succumbing to the hazardous implications of all four.

It might seem odd to criticize a Woody Allen movie for being self-indulgent. Surely, after the decades and various periods of his filmmaking career, we have come to expect that quality. This is, after all, a man who has had almost as many fictional stand-ins within his movies as he has movies in his filmography. Allen is unafraid to put himself or someone else serving as what has come to be known as the "Woody Allen character" on screen. Whatever one may think of this persona, one has to admire the apparent honesty of it.

Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a philosophy professor who has a love-hate relationship with the subject, doesn't seem to be an Allen surrogate, but that doesn't matter. What the character represents and how he goes about following his passion to extreme ends are most certainly concerns for Allen. We can safely assume this simply because of the existence of the movie.

If that's not enough of a convincing case, there's also the fact that Allen gives us the character's near-constant thought process through snippets of his lectures, lengthy dialogue exchanges on the character's favorite topic of conversation, and a series of inner soliloquys in which Abe informs us what he's thinking and why he's thinking it. When Abe isn't narrating, we get another character describing through voice-over what she thinks about Abe. The concept of dueling narrators can be fascinating when it gives us two sides to one story. Here, we're basically getting half of one story from each character. It just sounds more complex because the two characters talk a lot and with big words.

The story that comes to light is one of the inherent silliness and potential danger of a life dedicated to the pursuit of finding meaning in life (It's perhaps doubly silly and dangerous to try to find meaning in a life devoted to finding meaning to life). The contention is that philosophy is an inherently solipsistic enterprise. It's always about oneself. Even if a person decides that life is best lived in helping others, the conclusion serves primarily to make the person drawing that conclusion feel better about his or her own existence. We're selfish beings, and Allen appears to be saying that the field of philosophy is the ultimate proof of that selfishness.

It's an intriguing notion, which makes the resulting movie an even more confounding experience. The story follows Abe as he arrives at a new university and becomes a hit with his students, particularly Jill (Emma Stone), whose boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley) is convinced she's attracted to her teacher. He's right, although Abe wants to keep his relationship with Jill professional and just friendly enough.

While out to lunch one day, the two overhear a conversation at the booth next to theirs. A woman is bemoaning a custody hearing with her ex-husband. The judge is friends with the attorney of her ex, and it's a foregone conclusion that the judge will award him custody. The woman wishes, as terrible—she admits—as it sounds, that the judge would die. Abe concludes that wishing doesn't accomplish anything, so he decides to take action to help the poor woman.

What we have, essentially, is a thriller that plays out as a comedy. Abe devises a "perfect murder," and while he sets up and executes his scheme, a jaunty jazz piano piece repeats on the soundtrack. It's an upbeat juxtaposition to Allen's staging and framing of Abe's stalking of the judge (Tom Kemp), which has our protagonist emerging from hiding and tracking his intended prey with cold, calculated eyes.

The joke is that the depressed Abe, who earlier tries to liven up a party with his students by demonstrating how Russian roulette is played, finds his purpose in life by deciding to end the life of another human being. He gets his mojo back, finally being able to bed his colleague Rita (Parker Posey) and finding a reason to reciprocate Jill's crush on him. The threat is that Abe is resolved to put his thought experiment into practice.

The movie is resolute in its indecisiveness on the matter at hand. Abe is both foolish and menacing. His behavior is simultaneously absurd and logical. Allen wants us to laugh at Abe and dread what he might do. It's an experiment in contradictory tones, but it's not a convincing one.

That's because the joke is only briefly amusing, the threat is undermined by the gag, and Allen's approach relies on the same "verbal masturbation" that he sets out to undermine (The movie ultimately is a meandering treatise on random chance ruling over existence). After a little bit of pleasure, Irrational Man does become monotonous and unfulfilling.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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