“Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation.” This little aphorism from the male lead in Woody Allen’s dark comedy-drama, Irrational Man, sums up the entire film. Allen’s oeuvre is characterised by existential questions of the meaning(lessness) of life. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a scruffy philosophy professor, Abe Lucas, who lectures on “situational ethics” at the fictional university, Brailyn. Kant, Kierkegard, Merleau-Ponty – Abe’s teachings on the meaninglessness of life, of randomness, and of moral choice, are overt reflections of his own life. Despite his unkept appearance, spare tyre and melancholy, women everywhere fawn over him. One of his worshippers, his colleague Rita (Parker Posey), suggests he needs a muse to get him out of his rut.
Enter one of Abe’s students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone). Jill is smart enough to attract Abe’s attention, and the two start ‘hanging out’. Her very rational boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley), has to listen Jill’s annoying and unabated babbling about her new professor, though she glibly denies she has any romantic feelings for him. “He’s very radical, very original. You either love him or hate him, really,” she gushes. Her infatuation though is entirely unoriginal – a student falling in love with her professor (yawn). Jill is convinced she can rid Abe of his jaded misanthropy, but Abe resists her sexual overtures. At first that is. The more time she spends with Abe, the more Jill finds his jaded cynicism attractive.
Abe is unable to perform sexually in any case. His ‘mojo’ has left him, not just physically, but also in his writing: “I wanted to be an active world changer and I’ve wound up a passive intellectual who can’t fuck.” At a student party, a drunk and deranged Abe grabs the host’s half-loaded revolver and starts to play Russian roulette. “Fifty-fifty odds are better than most people get in life,” he slurs.
But it’s when he’s on the cusp of rock-bottom that the ethics professor discovers an ironic and dark solution to his listless and hollow existence: to commit a Dostoevsky-esque ‘moral’ crime to help someone in need. Incidentally, Abe’s choice to take action rather than ruminate (he quotes Simone de Beauvoir in this regard) also becomes the metaphoric viagra he needs to fix his sex life, and he begins a relationship with Jill.
Allen presents a satire of philosophy through Abe’s nihilism, despair, and acerbic observations. Philosophy is about trying to discern meaning – the whys rather than the whats – but as Allen suggests in this film, it’s a field of study that is often seen (and probably is) poppycock disguised as intellectualism. And that’s the biggest downfall of this film: an over-saturation of philosophical namedropping and quotes containing terms like ‘phenomenology’. A Simone de Beauvoir line, about taking action immediately, is randomly inserted into a conversation that has little to do with feminism, as if to ensure there is at least a couple of sentences to appease those who might notice the massive near-omission of gender theory.
As if to illustrate this, the lead female character, Emma Stone’s Jill lacks any depth. Maybe it’s weak casting; maybe it’s poor script writing. The character herself admits she’s “dumb and vulnerable.” But surely, this kind of self-examination could have allowed Jill to realise that her optimistic disposition is just as empty as Abe’s preoccupation with the futility of existence.
Allen is a master of navigating between darker themes and comedic witticism, and Irrational Man has the same approach. But apart from an almost deus ex machina twist, there is nothing extraordinary about this film. Vanilla, if you like. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, or unenjoyable; it’s just not Allen’s best work. Most Woody Allen films can be watched multiple times, studied, chewed on, but Irrational Man isn’t one of of them.
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Posey Parker, Jamie Blackley
Rating: 3 out of 5