Irrational Man (2015): A Teaser for Sartre

Can a director who churns out a movie every year continuously over the past four decades bring us anything new at age 79?

Yes, and no. But here’s the thing with Woody Allen’s annual offering, a summer treat in recent years, the answer is… does it matter?

Before you read on, be warned that the following discussion contains, no, implies, Spoilers.

Unlike his recent films – Magic In the Moonlight, Blue Jasmine, To Rome With Love, and Midnight In Paris – Irrational Man is not a comedy. It is a semi-serious drama carrying some signature WA thematic materials. Those familiar with his Match Point (2005) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) will find Irrational Man a variation on the same theme, but this time with a twist. So there you go, the old has become new.

Here again, the writer/director is toying with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s idea of getting away with crime for those who are superior. What if one commits a crime out of a superior motive, purely altruistic and benevolent? If a crime is committed with the full intention to rescue someone from a miserable predicament, shouldn’t the criminal be thanked rather than punished?

Interesting premise, and when the idea is embodied in Joaquin Phoenix, the character actor who is beyond categorization, here’s the attraction. First time in a WA film, Phoenix has prepared well with the right physique – an obvious paunch – to show his method immersion. He plays a listless philosophy professor Abe, who has no life purpose, no drive even when starting a new position or finish writing his book, but just passing his summer teaching hours with easy chats on Kant, Kierkegaard, and Sartre, while still attracting students and colleagues alike.

Irrational Man's pivotal scene

One day in a coffee shop, upon overhearing a woman talk to her friends about her desperate child custody case, Abe is overcome with empathy. (Photo above: a pivotal scene.) He is ready to live out an existential choice: by taking actions in his owns hands in committing a crime to help the woman, he in turn discovers the purpose for his own existence. Did I say this is not a comedy? Well, let me qualify that. There’s no laughter in the theatre. However, Phoenix’s character and action is inherently an ironic jest; the story we see on screen works like an object lesson on the freedom of choice, and a teaser for Sartre.

I look forward to these annual WA productions, even when I hear dialogues that sound like I’ve heard them before. Why? Where else would one find nowadays philosophical chitchats on screen for our entertainment? Philosophical chitchats, the term itself is an oxymoron; here lies the fun of a WA film. Allen doesn’t take his characters seriously, so we have light characters engaged in serious talks.

The psuedo-intellectual screen talks are humour in themselves. Just because we can’t spot a Marshall McLuhan in a theatre line-up anymore to clarify his own ideas as in Annie Hall, let alone get Sartre to referee the on-screen discourses, so we can sit back leisurely and be amused at Allen’s characters delving in philosophical problems, while their life and fate collide in twists and turns.

The is Emma Stone’s second WA movie back-to-back with her Magic in the Moonlight in 2014. As a college student falling for her philosophy prof sounds more convincing a role for Stone than as a young medium with telepathic ability to contact the dead. What’s interesting about these annual WA productions are the interesting combinations of A-listers being cast in some wacky roles. Something new, something old… thought you’ve seen it before? Just wait till the end.

To kick off your Philosophy 101 class, Irrational Man could be a lively visual aid to hold your students’ interest. Breezy, entertaining, lines to discuss and dispel, with an ending that long-time WA watchers could well interpret as the director redeeming himself from creating those in Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors in his younger days. Turning 80 the end of this year, maybe Allen has finally decided to lean towards the side that says, yes, there’s poetic justice after all.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Other Related Ripple Reviews:

Magic In The Moonlight (2014)

Blue Jasmine (2013)

To Rome With Love (2012)

Midnight In Paris (2011)


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “Irrational Man (2015): A Teaser for Sartre”

  1. Arti, nice critique of the WA movie. yes, to the “poetic justice” in the end…i saw it last week so there were no spoilers from reading your post. you have a wonderful way with words.


  2. Well, well, well — you make me want to see it all the more! I always love a good Woody (my cable has had Midnight in Paris on over and over and over and every time I watch it I am more enchanted!). Same with Hannah/Sisters recently. And I’ve always been very fond of “Crimes” and “Match…” though not as familiar. I’m not terribly well boned up on philosophy but I know it when I hear it and always appreciate the dialogue and the conundrums it can provide. Yes, moved even higher on the list!


    1. Jeanie,

      If you’ve enjoyed “Match” and “Crimes”, then you must see this one. As a matter of fact, I think I like WA’s drama, the serious ones more than some of his comedies, like “Interiors” (very ‘Bergmanesque’), and I’d never thought of “Manhattan” as a comedy. As for the more recent ones, two I really enjoy and which I can’t say are strictly comedy, more like ‘dramedy’ and that’s “Midnight In Paris” and “Blue Jasmine.” Aren’t you amazed at all these annual creations? BTW, the next one has Kristen Stewart and Bruce Willis in it.


  3. Thanks for the spoiler alert, and yet, I find myself reading no further, alas! I will bookmark this page instead and track the film down when on DVD, what with having once been a Sartre reader. I find Allen continually surprising. Celebrity elicited a magnificent performance from Leo diCaprio (who’d’ve thunk it?) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona had a complexity I didn’t expect – I thought I’d try the film out in spite of reservations. I sometimes wonder what his novels would read like if he ever wrote any. I suspect the humour might get in the way for the literati, who are often a bit unswervingly serious.


    1. Jeff,

      Maybe not novels, but Allen had written many essays which were compiled into books. I remember some of his essays were included in the Norton Readers during my college days decades ago. So in that sense he was considered among the contemporary literati. As for his films, they seem to come in groups, early days, middle, and now the breezy summer offerings starting with Midnight in Paris (2011). But this one, Irrational Man, definitely echoes the premise in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Points. The three can be considered a trilogy even, in my opinion. Hope you’ll have the chance to see it soon.


      1. I find myself watching any of his films with a ‘right, we’d better get on with this’ attitude that turns in a ‘well, that was refreshingly complicated’ by the end. For sure I’ll have a leaf through his essays if any secondhand copies turn up. He has a genuinely neurotic throughtfulness that never comes across as something he learned on a module at film school. I dare say that there’s now a Woody Allen and Genuinely Neurotic Cinema module somewhere.

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      2. Saw it earlier tonight. The film is like a bad episode of Columbo. The lead character seems familiar for a WA film. Abe is an intellectual / creative who’s pursued by several females who swoon over his maverick genius. Yet what are his maverick ideas? We never find out. All we get from him is a string of Wikipedia quotes to name-drop existentialists and Kant. Why this bizarre combination? A movement criticised for lacking a coherent moral philosophy doesn’t have any obvious relationship with an Enlightenment deontologist. The philosophers and their quotes may have been included because they had the widest possibility of being faintly recognised by a reasonably educated audience. What a pity that this didn’t go anywhere with philosophical depth.
        Potential plot spoilers coming.
        Why would a philosophy professor decide to murder the tormentor of a stranger simply by accepting that stranger’s subjective account? A major defining characteristic of philosophers is that they ask questions. They’re also aware of consequentialist ethics and that there are such things as unintended consequences. Abe seemed blissfully unaware of any of this. Perhaps this was because he was less a philosopher than a tortured artist / Romanticist nihilist cliche.
        There were so many duff things in this film that I hardly know where to start. There were countless scenes that serviced the plot at the expense of credibility: the dinner-table conversation about the murder method, the incident at the fairground that illustrated ‘gut instinct’, the successful amateur burglary, the flashlight trip-up etc. There were unlikely character and setting details: the Ivy-league Philosophy undergrad with enough time to learn piano to recital standard; first year students who are in their mid-twenties and older; a blurry line between staff and students’ social lives; undealt-with alcoholism in a staffer; a student being asked to stay behind just to be singled out for praise etc. Campus life is only like this in Hollywood tropes and the fantasies of the middle-age men who write them.
        There were two good things about the film though. It makes a change when someone tries to make a film about philosophy. This one fails to develop any depth or subtlety in the way that WA usually does, but it was a worthy thing for any film-maker to embark on. And that’s the other good thing. It’s great that a film-maker has the balls to attempt things that can fail in order to achieve so much that doesn’t. Hurray for WA. Boo for Irrational Man.


        1. We hear Abe admit to having no purpose in his life; he’s listless, aimless at first. Subscribing to the Existentialist’s ideology, his taking up the cause to help the woman to ‘secure’ her child custody attempt has now become a ‘worthy purpose’ for his life. With that, he can exercise both his ‘freedom of choice’, and assert the ‘raison d’être’ of his existence. That’s an oversimplification of the philosophy of course, and more like a joke WA has played on Sartre. That’s why I have my post entitled “A Teaser for Sartre” because, the storyline just points to the question of: Do we have absolute freedom? The answer is obvious. Sure you’re free to do whatever you choose, but that doesn’t actualize your existence so much as lead you to reap the consequence of your own actions. After all, we do not exist in a vacuum but in an inter-related, highly connected world. Things aren’t so ‘random’ after all… and unlike WA’s previous two films C&M and MP, the ending here does not allow the criminal to get away easily. Hence, the ‘poetic justice’ ending. Just my simple take on a simple story. I don’t think WA meant for it to be a serious exposition on Existentialism. 😉


          1. Can’t say I know much about Sartre: does his philosophy take no account of ethics and consequences of actions? Is this the joke that WA plays on him? If so, maybe that’s why I don’t ‘get’ the joke.


  4. A blogger I follow just posted a poem titled “Poetic Justice,” and now here the phrase is again. I’ll mention to you what I said to him: that before “The Task at Hand” was born, it lived for a while with “Poetic Justice” as its title. Could there be some great, cosmic convergence on the horizon?

    As one who began college in the mid-60s, I experienced plenty of sitting around in the coffee shop talking of Sartre, Kierkegaard and Camus. In fact, I still remember the name of my philosophy professor: though i’ve forgotten the name of the coffee shop we frequented.

    There are enough point of connection that I think I’d enjoy this one greatly. Thanks for the intriguing review!


    1. Yes, I’ve come across Still Voicing’s post. That’s quite a coincidence. Poetic Justice, I like the sound of it, which certainly is a wonderful concept. This Woody Allen film you’ll find interesting. I enjoy his dialogues because he’s not afraid to actually put philosophical words and yes, jargons you can say, in his characters’ mouth. I love those philosophical chitchats. I was a precocious youngster in the 60’s reading on philosophical ideas on my own for personal interests, which of course was much gratified when I went to university and grad school later. But I wish I could have the coffee shop chats with my prof like you did. BTW, I’d visited that restaurant where Sartre and Camus frequented and engaged in their discourses when I was in Paris a few years ago. 😉


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