By Ali Bush '19
Is your life worth living? What would you do for existential fulfillment? Murder? Don’t answer that. These are the questions one faces when watching Woody Allen’s newest film, “Irrational Man” (2015). I was extremely skeptical about Allen’s new film, which appeared to adhere to the plot lines of many of his recent films such as “Magic in the Moonlight” (2014) and “Midnight in Paris” (2011). Like these films, “Irrational Man” is centered around yet another middle aged, white man in the midst of an existential crisis. With the accusation surrounding Allen in the past couple of years, I even considered boycotting the film, but my curiosity got the best of me. While producing quality art by no means excuses such horrific actions, there may still be some value in analyzing the art nonetheless.
Written and directed by Allen, the film’s pseudo-protagonist is Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a self-loathing philosophy professor with a drinking problem. He finds himself at a new job within the tightly knit community of Braylin, a small liberal arts college, and despite his success in arousing the interest and curiosity of his students and colleagues— especially the inquisitive Jill Pollard (Emma Stone)— Abe maintains an unshakably Hobbesian outlook on life: nasty, brutish, and short. While Abe continues to wallow in self-pity, rumors about his heroic, yet traumatic, activist past spread around the campus.
Although Abe is adored in this academic community, he remains creatively and emotionally parched until the plot takes an unexpected twist. Abe overhears a conversation of a distressed mother’s custody case that is being ruled by a corrupt judge, and he finds his call to action. This eavesdropping session results in an aha! moment for the pitiful protagonist. The solution to his seemingly interminable mid-life crisis: murder. Abe supposes that if he exterminates this corrupt judge, it’s a win-win situation. He secretly becomes his own hero while simultaneously ridding the world of a slimy, corrupt villain. Sounds legit enough. Right?
In the typical Allen manner, the main character seems both irksome and refreshing throughout the film. Although Abe’s constant groveling can seem excessive, his real world perspective and no-nonsense attitude in an academic setting is oddly refreshing. As the story progresses, the viewer begins to become a part of the on-campus gossip about Abe’s past, and pretty soon Allen pulls us into Abe’s circle of fans. Although Abe and Jill’s dialogue occasionally sounds more like a research paper than a conversation, you almost can’t help but root for Abe. Then you hear his scheme and realize he’s a low-key murderer. Or maybe you don’t realize that and see the justification behind his murderous plot. In the excitement between shots, murder may seem like a completely acceptable method to find meaning in life, right? When the scenery of the Rhode Island coast behind the characters is so beautiful and dappled with sunlight, perhaps it’s more difficult to grapple with such intense questions. The collegiate setting seems to be the last place for a murderer, and it’s honestly enthralling. It becomes clear that maybe our inner thrill-seeking rebel understands Abe’s murderous rantings while society dictates otherwise. That’s exactly what both sickened and captivated me about this movie. At moments, I was so immersed in the character’s dialogue that I found myself falling into Woody’s sneaky trick of making us sympathize with a murderer.
As fate unrolls in the rest of the movie, the viewer gets a chance to think things out more thoroughly. Perhaps the most appalling act Allen imposes on us is finding a way to make us sympathize with and even come to like a man who acts on his murderous urges. Maybe I dislike Allen even more now for somehow making me question my own morals. So yes, this is another Woody Allen movie about a middle-aged white guy in distress, but just go see the movie. Believe me, the twists and turns will shock you.