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)