Wednesday, August 5, 2015

New movie review: Irrational Man

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Woody Allen's Irrational Man.

There is a barely perceptible line between theory and reality. Most of us walk right up to it every day without even knowing it. It is the line that separates our beliefs from our actions, and stepping over it represents a decision to act on our feelings – for good or bad. The whole concept of morality is based on the underlying idea that what we do reflects who we are. The culture lionizes those who stand on the strength of their convictions and decries those who do not, but it is that same culture that decides what convictions are worth celebrating and when.

Take murder, for example. That seems like an easy one, but if we recontextualize it just a bit, the waters quickly get murky. As a moral maxim, let us say it is wrong to take a life. Now you are a solider. Does that hold true? Now you are a policeman. Does that hold true? Now, the life you have taken was that of an evil-doer, and the world is a better place without him. Does that hold true? Who decides any of this?

Irrational Man finds writer-director Woody Allen in thought-provoking, philosophical mode as he tells the story of a university philosophy professor who grapples with the question of what actions he is allowed to take in a moral universe. This is my favorite mode for Allen to work in, and his latest film reminds of masterworks such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. However, whereas the characters in those earlier films were debating how to handle immediately life-altering problems, the professor in Irrational Man is dealing with a far more existential crisis.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a middle-aged college professor with a reputation for radical thinking but who has lost the will to live. This is a classic Allen character – the person who is too smart for his own good; too morose to find satisfaction; distraught, despairing, and suicidal but too self-important to carry out the act. Phoenix is an interesting choice for the part, and he does not allow himself to drift into the Allen impersonation so many of the director’s other leading men have tried. Phoenix is more restrained, more inside himself, and seemingly more dangerous.

Phoenix and Emma Stone in Irrational Man.
Parker Posey plays Rita, another teacher at the school who sees Abe as her ticket out of the drab life in which she finds herself trapped. Emma Stone is Jill, the student who inevitably develops a crush on Phoenix’s character. He does his best to keep his relationship with Jill platonic as he carries on an affair with the married Rita, but as one might expect, complications ensue.

If that had been the end of it, Irrational Man would have had the makings of a light-weight romantic comedy romp leavened by solid performances, particularly from Phoenix and Posey, and Allen’s usual flair for effortlessly witty dialogue. It should be noted as well that cinematographer Darius Khondji’s work makes for the best-looking Allen film since Midnight in Paris, which Khondji also lensed. There is a lot to like in the bare bones of the film, but Allen has his sights on something else entirely.

Abe’s problems are not merely romantic. They are philosophical. He is in crisis. He is impotent, creatively blocked, and lacking the will to change. As several characters observe, including Abe himself, he has no lust for life. Allen drives this point home marvelously as Abe engages in a game of Russian roulette in front of Jill and her shocked college friends at a party. This is a man teetering on the edge.

Then, by a stroke of luck, everything changes. He and Jill are sitting across from one another at a diner when she beckons him to her side of the table to listen to the conversation going on behind them. A woman, whom neither Jill nor Abe knows, laments to her friends that she is on the verge of losing her children to her lout of an ex-husband seemingly due to her having drawn a particularly corrupt family court judge. The woman wishes cancer on the judge, and Abe observes in voiceover that he will not get cancer and that wishing will not make it so. That is when everything clicks into place for him.

Jill later confesses to Abe she thought about the judge and also wished him dead of a heart attack or some other unfortunate incident. Abe has something more direct in mind: the perfect murder. This idea takes hold in him, and his life is saved by the simple notion he could end another’s. The thought alone is enough to get his juices flowing, as he says at one point. He is sexually reinvigorated, creatively inspired, and infused with a love of life he thought he had long forgotten.

There is nothing to say whether he will carry out his plan, and opinions among his friends vary as to whether Abe is capable of committing such a heinous act. One thing is certain, though. He would have no trouble justifying himself if he did. Abe is a philosophy professor. He knows the ins and outs of moral reasoning, and he is well acquainted with the line between theory and reality. The question is: Will he step over it?

Early in the film, the first time we see Abe in the classroom, he lectures on this very subject. He asks his students if in a moral universe in which lying is never justifiable they would have given up Anne Frank and her family to the Nazis. Believing in a moral universe and that lying is wrong is all well and good, but Abe argues such theoretical beliefs mean nothing in the face of real-world atrocities.

Let’s revisit what we said at the top. It is wrong to take a life. Now you are Abe with the chance to rid the world of a corrupt judge and help a good woman keep custody of her children. Does that hold true? Does Abe get to decide? Whether or not Abe goes through with his plan to commit the perfect murder, the fact he would he would consider it is scary enough. As Irrational Man argues, it seems you can only stare at the line so long before you are tempted to cross it.

See it? Yes.

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