Take Allen’s 2005 film Match Point and throw in some Albert Camus-esque existential predicaments and you should have an idea whereabouts you’re headed with Woody Allen’s latest film Irrational Man.
Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a brilliant but tormented philosophy professor, is having an existential crisis and as a result has abandoned his moral code – and he is all too aware of it, as he is currently covering Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard in his lectures. He can’t write, can’t make love, and can’t find a reason to go on living. His moral code is out-the-window, and he is suicidal.
When we first meet Abe, it seems he has been caught in the throes of this crisis for some time, as his backstory seems to suggest a long search for meaning in life, which has taken him around the world. At the beginning of the film Abe has just taken a role as a philosophy professor, and it feels like maybe the search for meaning has exhausted him and he’s sought comfort in the familiar institutionalised human experience – teaching, holding a job, living in a small house, etc. – and this giving up on the search has rendered him truly lame. He drinks constantly and risks his life and reputation repeatedly. Then, by chance, he finds a reason to live, and a way in which he can truly act as his own moral agent – he finds himself in a position to discreetly murder a corrupt judge who he believes to be evil.
Convinced the world will be better without the judge, Abe suddenly finds a reason to live, and finds himself back on his feet, able to write and make love once more. At the same time as all of this, Abe romances two women (Emma Stone and Parker Posey), both of whom are in relationships already, in a sort of strange love-pentagon in which Abe seems recite a moral code and abandon his moral code in equal measures.
Both Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix shine in this. There’s a scene where Phoenix is walking through a park filled with adrenalin, and you just watch him walking with this face and it’s incredible acting. I found myself wondering: how does one even make their face look that way!? (Seriously, did he hang upside-down from his feet before they rolled?) Similarly, Emma Stone’s performance is great – it’s very natural and she makes good decisions in front of Allen’s camera, which can’t be easy to do, as the director is notorious for giving little-to-no direction or feedback on performances. During a struggle, she kicks and whips her body around in a way that looks so real it’s frightening.
So how does this compare to other Woody Allen films? Here’s the breakdown…
Laughs: The average amount. Some decent chuckles.
Cinematography: Slightly better than average. Modern cameras and grading used well.
Acting: Pretty damn good from Phoenix, Stone, and Posey, though a few supporting actors were mediocre.
Music: Not great, sometimes a little bit jarring.
Story: Entertaining, not his best plot though. Considering how in early films Allen always laments against the pseudo-intellectuals, this film does make quite a big fuss over the rudiments of philosophy. I enjoyed the show though, and would give this flick 5/10. It’s probably something like my tenth-favourite Woody Allen Film.
I’ll finish this by saying that I can appreciate an artwork separate from the artist. Some people can’t, I understand and respect that, and some people can, and I am one who can. I can also appreciate an artist who has a work ethic. When the whole world hated Kanye cos he didn’t let whatsername finish, (including the president of his country, who called him a jackass in an interview), Kanye went into the studio and while we all wasted time hating on him, he made Dark Fantasy. I like Dark Fantasy all the more because of that. If the whole world hated me, I’d probably just go “Ah, sod it,” and lay down on a train track.
I have a little bit of that same respect for Mr Allen too, who is currently Public Enemy Number 1, and yet still does his art – because he is his art. As an artist myself, I massively respect an artist with a strong work ethic, because they are so few and far between. Mr Allen has churned out (written and directed, no less) about one film per year for half a century now. Fifty years, a film each… That’s admirable! Some of his films were great, some good, and some not-for-me. But he did it. He had a vocation. That’s what I yearn for – that attitude of no matter where I end up, hated or loved, I will keep making my art until I physically can’t. With Irrational Man, Allen has made another pretty good Woody Allen Film – and I love that he made it. I liked the film, but I love that he made it.