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Irrational Man

Woody Allen. You gotta love him.

Allen’s movies have been dissected, debated, debunked, demonized and otherwise discussed for many years, but I don’t think anyone thought he would remain as fresh and interesting as he has been in what must be the twilight of his fifty year long career. (And that’s only his films; he’s been writing and acting in television since the Colgate Comedy Hour in the early 1950’s.) The last five years alone have brought us Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love, Blue Jasmine, Magic in the Moonlight, and now Irrational Man, and only To Rome with Love was generally believed to be a failure. Actually, that’s saying it too negatively. How about this: Midnight in Paris was compared to Annie Hall as potentially Allen’s best film ever; Blue Jasmine was an unqualified success and won the Academy Award for Cate Blanchett; and Magic in the Moonlight was shallow but loved. How many 79-year-old men do you know who have had that much success in the last five years?

Though the critics have not been kind to Irrational Man, I believe Allen has shown once again that he is best filmmaker in history at putting serious, important thoughts into a story that is intriguing, at times funny, and always engaging. Man fits alongside Crimes and Misdemeanors (which is decidedly better, I admit) as the most philosophically engaging movies Allen has done; Match Point builds the philosophy into the film without saying as much about it. The story revolves around a philandering philosophy professor, named Abe Lucas (played by Joaquin Phoenix), who arrives at a small, California college and immediately becomes involves with Jill (Emma Stone), a student, and Rita (Parker Posey), a fellow faculty member. Sex plays some role in the picture but only as a foil to explain how seriously Abe is in the throes of philosophic depression; he’s even been impotent for the last year.

The event that brings Abe out of his funk is to plan the perfect murder, one that rids society of a cockroach but is performed by someone who has no relationship to the victim at all. Plotting this murder energizes him once again, and the film’s action and intrigue take off from there.

The movie displays Allen’s usual gift for dialogue (“I can’t write. I can’t breathe. I couldn’t remember the reason for living, and, when I did, it wasn’t convincing.”) and quiet, assured camerawork, and of course the cast is outstanding. What sets this film apart is its rotation around a philosophy professor and his view of the meaning of life. Again, Crimes and Misdemeanors comes to mind, but the main character in that movie is an ophthalmologist, not a philosopher or theologian. Here, philosophy is spouted directly, head on, and the key plot points are spoken of in terms of moral justification.

Like several movies from last year (Boyhood and Birdman come to mind), existentialism, the dominant philosophical stream of the 60’s, shows up in spades. Camus’s The Stranger with its murdering protagonist, is not mentioned in the film, but surely was in Allen’s mind as he wrote, and the Danish existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, is prominently referenced, as the subject of one of Lucas’s lecture topics.

Like any good thriller, one doesn’t know what is going to happen until the very end. Irrational Man is to be seen by anyone interested in ideas about meaning as we move more deeply into the twenty-first century. And by anyone who just wants to see a good movie.

Drew Trotter

August 18, 2015

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