A halfway faux pas: Irrational Man (Woody Allen, 2015)

Joaquin Phoenix is Abe Lucas (©2015 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved).

An entertaining rehash of certain powerful ideas in Allen’s filmography, but a rehash after all.

[Texto en ESPAÑOL]

*** This is an edited and extended version of a review made for the unpublished crime non-fiction magazine “Rojonegro”, created for the Journalism Specialty of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (2015).

You are Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), the new professor of philosophy at the University of Braylin, New England. You are a celebrity among the academics. You have lived too much. Family issues. Friends killed in the Middle East. Impotent. Dipsomaniac. Junkie. Suicidal. You are getting through an intense writer’s block that goes along with your existential crisis. Without intending to, you end up in a strange love triangle that involves your student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone); and your colleague, Rita Richards (Parker Posey). Such adventure doesn’t seem to calm you. You go on without a compass until that morning in the restaurant. At the next table, a woman burst into tears. She will lose the custody of her children due to the influence of a corrupt judge in the family court. The imminent injustice is eating you. Is this the moment you were looking for? An empirically feasible situation, theoretically ideal. A stranger. Nobody would suspect. Make the judge disappear. Divine justice as its finest. A chance to play God. How to plan and execute the perfect murder and get away with it?

I saw Irrational Man during my second visit to Warsaw, in the European summer of 2015. When I was leaving the Kino Luna at the end of the show, I remember carrying with me that first thought that is more and more common with Woody Allen‘s films, “it looks like such or such, but it was not that bad”. It has been a few years, I have seen the film again and checked this review and I would say, honestly, that Irrational Man has aged well. Certainly far away from Allen’s highlights, but not among the worst either, at least considering the different bad reviews it picked up at the time. I am not saying that I liked it more this time, but it is important to mention that this story fits perfectly with the discourse that Allen’s filmography has been building over the years.

Woody Allen with the actors (©2015 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved).

If we think about Allen’s entire filmography, it is not the first time that we have encountered the conflict and questioning that homicide entails, as we saw in the splendid -my favourite- Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) or the less successful but interesting Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), to name a few. Let’s see, the film has recurring themes of Allen: a love triangle, infidelity, an artistic-intellectual atmosphere, jazz, philosophical and moral debates, murder … What new contribution to Allen’s universe does this film propose?

Not much. The three protagonists are charming, with performances that work within the limitations of the script. Despite the abuse of literary and philosophical references in Abe’s disquisitions, which sometimes are hard to swallow in the character, there are good moments laden with a familiar black humour of the director, as here: “I wanted to be a world changer and I’ve ended up a passive intellectual who can’t fuck”. The photography of Darius Khondji gives us beautiful portraits of the city. Is there anything else? I do not think so, although that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The movie tries to emulate some of the greatest successes of the filmmaker, becoming unimaginative, somewhat in a hurry, but enjoyable. Woody Allen has a trajectory greatly enhanced by the self-referentiality and repetition of his stories, and this generates something that has become evident in his films since the beginning of the 21st century, I would say: the more he tends to copy himself, the more he will ensure an entertaining screening, perhaps nostalgic, but each time more inferior. Movies that may work exclusively with his followers.

Joaquin Phoenix in “Irrational Man” (©2015 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved).

It happens that when you see Irrational Man, is almost inevitable to evoke other Allen films, all better than this one. The story of a crime with existentialist nuances is already there and in its best form in the aforementioned Crimes and Misdemeanors, where Martin Landau hires a hitman to eliminate his lover; in Match Point (2005), where Jonathan Rhys-Meyers decides to do the same on his own; or even with more comedy in Love and Death (1975), when the same Allen as Boris Grushenko and his cousin and wife played by Diane Keaton plan to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte. These titles explore better the Dostoevsky themes that obsesses Allen. In our protagonist, the philosopher, that becomes almost literal: he owns a copy of Crime and Punishment full of his homicidal notes. Abe’s conflict is typical of the moral philosophy: Can murder be considered a contribution to society? How to live after perpetrating it? Here lies one of the few doses of creativity of the film: Abe Lucas and his way of rationalizing homicide become interesting in comparison to other moral stories of Allen, where the motive is usually passion. In Irrational man it is about justice, or at least an idea of ​​it.

The consummation of the biggest crime, to kill another human being, seems to be the answer of Abe Lucas to his obsessive attempt to reach certain kind of spiritual rebirth. To disappear a supposedly evil and corrupt judge from the face of the earth is the motive he has been seeking to embrace fullness. However, Abe is not an idealistic vigilante, he follows the path of existentialism. The meaning of his life dwells in the decision and the conviction to act against what is morally accepted in our society. And so it happens the moral dilemma of the film, with its nefarious, absurd and comic consequences. Promising but without getting deeper.

Towards the end of the film, I feel that Woody Allen did not try hard enough to make us doubt whether Abe Lucas’s crime is justified or not, but I’m not complaining. Philosophical disputes about the possibility of murder are one of his strongest topics, something that his previous creations have worked better, sometimes magnificently. Perhaps if the script had not been subjected to Allen’s stubborn need to release a film per year, it would have been a superior or more original story. Irrational Man is very funny, it is not a bad idea, and it keeps the signature style of its director. Certainly watchable, but always a flawed option. You may just skip it and return to Martin Landau on the beach with Anjelica Huston.

  • The classic “The ‘In’ Crowd” by Ramsey Lewis Trio, the main theme of the film:

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  • rardDum 7 Noviembre, 2019 at 11:45 am

    hi 🙂 bross 🙂

    • Diego Olivas Arana 11 Noviembre, 2019 at 1:10 pm

      Hi! 🙂 Thanks for dropping by!

  • rardDum 7 Diciembre, 2019 at 7:05 pm

    i am from Italy hello. Can you help me translate? /rardor

    • Diego Olivas Arana 29 Diciembre, 2019 at 2:35 pm

      Hi there!! what do you want to translate? Thank you for reading 🙂

  • MixKiz 14 Mayo, 2020 at 11:58 pm

    Thank you very much for the invitation :). Best wishes.
    PS: How are you?

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