‘Is the world a better or worse place with one more mediocre Woody Allen film in it?‘ – Hugh McCabe on Woody Allen’s latest movie, Irrational Man
Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man is set on the campus of one of those leafy US liberal arts colleges that we know well from movies and literature, but which we also know don’t really exist anymore (if they ever did). The students are uniformly young, beautiful and eager to learn. The faculty are a comfortable and contented bunch who spend most of their time drinking, having affairs with each other, and gossiping about new arrivals on campus. No-one seems to be spending all their time worrying about citation indexes, filling out endless administrative paperwork and conducting research assessment exercises. It’s a wonderful world that, in the case of Allen’s movie, is rudely shaken up by one of those aforementioned new arrivals.
Abe Lucas (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a brilliant but burnt-out philosophy professor who arrives on campus to teach for a semester. He is a dark and disgruntled man, frustrated by his inability to write anymore, and frustrated by his inability to rise to the advances of Rita (Parker Posey), a bored fellow academic who dreams of emigrating to Spain, and who entices Abe into bed at the earliest opportunity. Alas neither his pen nor his sword is feeling very mighty. Abe buries himself in booze and thoughts of suicide, knocking back enough whisky to beat the campus marching band and horrifying his students by playing Russian Roulette with a loaded handgun at a party.
The only bright spot on Abe’s horizon is his burgeoning friendship with Jill (Emma Stone), a bright young student in thrall to his tortured philosopher shtick, who attempts to drag him out of his doldrums with her good humour and conversation. Jill soon makes it clear that she is in love with Abe and willing to offer more than just conversation, but Abe’s joie de vivre is restored not by hopping into the sack with a twenty one year old (don’t worry this comes later), but by hatching a plan to murder a corrupt judge. Abe and Jill overhear a conversation in a cafe where a tearful woman explains to her friends that this judge is about to take away custody of her children and hand them over to her useless and abusive ex-husband. It turns out that the ex-husband and the judge are golfing buddies and after some research Abe discovers that the judge has a long history of such behaviour. Quicker than you can say categorical imperative Abe decides that the world would be a better place without this rogue magistrate and decides on the spot to become a man of action rather than a man of words alone.
And so begins a typically Allen-esque morality play where the characters debate and agonise over the rights and wrongs of their actions. Is it justified to take the life of someone if that person is causing untold suffering to others? Should we remain loyal to our friends or turn them in if we know they have committed a crime? Is it right to do something because it feels good to do it? Does the end justify the means and do actions really speak louder than words? The context for all this of course is Abe’s status as a philosophy professor and in case we don’t appreciate the long history of such questions no opportunity is lost to drop in references to Doestoyefsky, Kierkegaard and Kant. Abe however abruptly abandons such lofty intellectual fare after making his fateful decision and, for a time at least, finds happiness in his new role as a doer rather than a thinker. He even finds it in himself to rise to the occasion not just with Rita, but Jill also.
So, is Irrational Man any good? The problem with evaluating a Woody Allen film is that he is a filmmaker whose reputation (not to mention his personal life) clouds any attempt at objective judgement. When reviewing his poorly received 2004 effort, Melinda and Melinda, the US critic Roger Ebert suggested that this reputation is now an unwelcome albatross around Allen’s neck. The standards set by his many brilliant earlier (and mid-period) films have proved impossible to live up to, and were Melinda and Melinda a debut film by some young upstart, then its virtues would have been praised rather than its failings pounced upon. What Ebert does not acknowledge however is that this can just as easily work the other way. Sometimes a reputation excuses mediocre work and encourages us to gloss over obvious flaws.
There is a short scene early on in Irrational Man that serves as a case in point here. A group of unfeasibly attractive female undergraduates are excitedly discussing Abe’s imminent arrival. Abe’s reputation has preceded him: the students know he is a renowned and brilliant academic with a tumultuous personal life and a proclivity for drink and drugs. One of the young women breathlessly informs the others that he sometimes even has affairs with his students. This ludicrous scene ends with all of them quivering with excitement at the thought of sleeping with a middle-aged alcoholic philosopher. Presumably the possibility of being lectured to about Nietzche and the will to power right afterwards only adds to the jouissance of it all. Let’s face it, if this scene was shot by a young filmmaker debuting at Sundance it would be laughed right out of court.
Abe justifies his actions to Jill by asking whether the world is a better or worse place without the corrupt judge in it. Here’s another question though. Is the world a better or worse place with one more mediocre Woody Allen film in it?