Joaquin Phoenix flirts with philosophy (and women).
Age seems to have mellowed Woody Allen a bit. The brand of neurosis which defines a classic like Annie Hall is the cycle of anxiety: every frame of the film oozes a deeply rooted sense of worry, which is compounded by the filmmaker seeming mortifyingly ashamed- and therefore becoming even more worried – that he’s shared too much, and in too inarticulate a fashion. Because of how memorable (and funny) this effect is, the Woody Allen we, or at least I imagine, is one who wears all of that on his sleeve, all the time.
He doesn’t, though; at least, not anymore, and the Woody Allen we have today is actually a very calm filmmaker. The consistent worry in his stories is still present, but it all exists in the script – gone are the days of fourth-wall breaking, animated non-sequiturs and the revision of introductory narration right in front of us. The characters may be anxious, but the camera is not. Today, Allen’s films are more about sinking in than they are about getting swept along and riled up.
Irrational Man is the most recent example of this shift in perspective, and it also manages to be more interesting and enjoyable than many of his outings lately. This is due, in no small part, to its explicit interest in philosophy. Allen’s tendency toward the existential has always been present in his films, and much of the humor they contain seems to stem from a human absurdism typically associated with existential modes of thought. In his earlier films, the veins of philosophy served as the undercurrents of the very personal, human stresses happening: Woody’s character in Annie Hall uses the tenants of existential thought in an attempt to articulate his very specific personal issues.
In Irrational Man, it is the opposite: personal, singular issues are exacerbated to become of philosophical import; or, at least, our protagonist, Abe, sees them to be. Jaoquin Phoenix plays the somewhat-depressed philosophy professor who has recently arrived at a small Northeastern liberal arts school, where he is greeted by two women: Rita, played by Parker Posey, who greets him at his house with a bottle of single-malt scotch, and Jill, an undergraduate student in a seemingly serious relationship who is immediately – though somehow she doesn’t seem to know it – attracted to her new teacher, and who is played by Emma Stone. Both are aware of Abe’s dispassion for life, and are fascinated by the way he subscribes to meaninglessness and can defend his position.
I have to give credit to the trailer for Irrational Man – going in, I was not aware it was, mostly, a murder mystery. Murder has been a tool of philosophical writers for centuries, and here Abe (and Allen) manage to drop as many of their names as they can. A full understanding of the morality plays discussed in the film requires a basic knowledge of literary giants and thinkers, including Nietzsche, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Camus, Kant, and Dostoevsky, among others. Only a very basic knowledge, though: to Allen’s credit, many of the rational (or, irrational) arguments made surrounding the murder at the center of the plot are articulated concisely and understandably even without knowing the minds at work behind them.
The film’s success relies quite heavily on our opinion of Abe, and Phoenix manages to straddle the lines between self-awareness and arrogance, intelligence and pretentiousness, and depression and self-pity amazingly well. These women aren’t simply attracted to him because he’s smart and troubled, but also because he’s genuinely attractive in his downfall: he doesn’t mope, he laments, and one can see him at some point in his past or future being a good man.
Rita is a similarly fully realized role. She’s played with a healthy awareness by Posey, who makes what could be in the hands of a lesser actress a stereotypical and easily judge-able woman into one who is possessed by a strange, sorrowful belief in making her life better.
The weak link here, though not in any sort of damnable fashion, is Stone, though I have the feeling it’s much more the writing than it is the actor. She’s presented, mostly, as a kid who just doesn’t know any better, and whose small acts of harm toward those around her she accepts as a kind of collateral damage. She often feels more like high school student than an undergraduate one; although, perhaps falling in love with a 40-plus-year-old professor has a way of negating a level of self-awareness an intelligent young person would otherwise have.
The camera follows them through a gorgeously quaint New England setting within which there seems to be very little manic energy; the landscape proposes a sort of welcome indifference to the ludicrous adventures of its heroes. More than anything, the backdrop of green and blue and rose-colored beach houses gives all the discussions about meaning and morality a smallness that renders them strangely charming. For those looking for another annual Woody Allen dramedy, this will serve nicely; however, what makes Irrational Man more immediately enjoyable than Allen’s other recent films is watching the philosophy that’s always felt present in his stories come to the forefront, and, if Kierkegaard is your thing, you might find it disappointing that the philosophy the film is swimming through exists solely to contain the story, rather than the narrative doing anything to open up the philosophy.
Without sacrificing the humorous moments – Allen has claimed that this is not a comedy, nor was it intentioned to be so, but it is certainly funny – there is a consistent amount of intellectual tension on display, if you care about the moral implications of your characters’ actions. If you don’t know your 19th century existentialists, treat the movie like Magic in the Moonlight, with only slightly less silliness and more murder. If you do, don’t expect any revelations about ‘The Stranger:’ if Allen wants to find any sort of human, concrete truth to his favorite thinkers, he doesn’t show it. Rather, the ambivalence of the world feels like it is constantly present as the puzzle gets put together, and as we look on it nothing seems irrational, despite the film’s title. We are actually treated with a portrait of rationality gone rampant; an argument that anything at all can be rationalized, and, in the end, only that which can’t is worth much at all. In comparison to the lovable relentless hand-waving worry of a younger Woody Allen, here we are given an intelligent smile and a warm shrug.