To quote an author whose work likely sits in Woody Allen’s home library, Albert Camus once wrote, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” Those are choice words that Allen’s latest construct, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), would be wise to take to heart. Instead, the rattled philosophy professor subscribes to the complicated writings of Søren Kierkegaard, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and especially Immanuel Kant. And yet it’s the latter philosopher’s concepts of morality and reason — read: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” — that both save and condemn Lucas in Allen’s new dramedy, Irrational Man.
Here’s the thing: Lucas knows what he preaches at prestigious campuses and in his own writing is nothing more than “verbal masturbation” that’s part of a “theoretical world of bullshit.” What makes him so marked, then, is that he feels this need to believe in it, and why shouldn’t he? His work, and the works that influenced and brought him to this esteemed stature, surround him at every corner. When we first meet Lucas, he’s accepted a job at Braylin, a small-town college about 45 minutes outside of Providence, Rhode Island. He’s something of a celebrity to everyone, both faculty and students alike, and that reputation works for and against him. It’s great in that he’s never alone, but the problem is that Lucas is hardly a functioning human being: He can’t write, he can’t feel, he can’t get it up.
“I could remember the reason for living and when I did it wasn’t very compelling,” Lucas admits to Emma Stone’s precocious and severely underwritten Jill Pollard. She’s a student of his, but also a rabid fan, so hellbent on drawing his admiration that she follows Lucas wherever he roams, which is usually during lucid walks across campus as he sips vintage single malt scotch from his flask. Pollard finds his existence bleak — how incisive — but continues to invest her time and emotions into this man, even after she berates him for showing a bunch of kids how Russian roulette works at a late night college party or when she starts to suspect he killed a local judge with cyanide following an existential moment in a diner. Meanwhile, she’s increasingly pissing off her obnoxious boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) and drawing envy from Lucas’ fellow co-worker (a tacked-on Parker Posey).
Let’s talk about that murder, though. Once more, Allen cracks open his copy of Crime and Punishment, even going so far as to include it in the goddamn film. (Lucas consults the book and liberally writes borderline confessional footnotes as he conspires to poison the judge.) The way Lucas sees it: Here’s a lawful being who has a right to do what’s just and fair, only he’s squandered that position. He comes to this conclusion after hearing a troubled single mother digress about her custody battle with a husband who’s all too friendly with the gavel monger. Amidst his existential dread, he determines that his purpose is to take out this son of a bitch. But, to his surprise, this realization saves him. He starts writing, he starts smiling, and he starts loving again. “The thought that I’d once been indifferent to existence was preposterous,” he tells us.
Yes, Lucas narrates the film. But so does Pollard. And that’s one of many problems with Irrational Man — the point of view is flawed. Allen dedicates so much of his time piecing together Lucas that those who surround him are merely philosophical satellites, paper-thin archetypes that seem to exist solely to bounce ideas off Lucas. So, when Allen shifts the weighty point-of-view to Pollard roughly around the third act, it’s a shade too serviceable. Worse, it’s unfounded. At this point, Pollard starts stripping away at the hagiography she’s constructed around Lucas, understandably a logical move, but considering that’s all we really know about her (and that’s all she’s really served as), the person who’s left is hollow, which doesn’t just hurt the ending but makes the final moments and the film’s robust themes of morality, perception, and free will register as null and void.
There’s also a strange tone to the proceedings. Similar to 2013’s Blue Jasmine, Allen takes a serious topic — in this case, murder — and continues to dress the scenes with picturesque sunlight and majestic imagery. Which makes sense given that Lucas is very, very similar to Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine in that he’s living a series of lies and fabrications. The key difference between the two films is how Allen slowly turns the faucet on reality. With Jasmine, her existence is so plasticized that she refuses to acknowledge the truth, even when she’s left to mutter on a park bench alone. For Lucas, it’s a little more complicated in that what he finds to be reality is actually a morally corrupt fabrication he’s constructed for himself, yet one that even he contends is slowly disintegrating. This time around, Allen can’t strike a bond between showing versus telling, and it all just stumbles.
That really is the crux of Irrational Man. At his best, Allen can write dialogue that outlasts time and inspires discussion, and at his worst, he can be overwrought and almost pandering to the point of self-parody. Admittedly, there are glimpses of his trademark brilliance in this film — not to mention one tantalizing and nuanced performance by Phoenix — but once more Allen seems to be of the mindset of his own protagonist. Only here, Allen comes across less like the reinvigorated Lucas and more like the dilapidated Lucas, bored and unconvinced by his own work, trade, and influences. “I can’t write because I can’t breathe,” the moody professor pleads early on. Perhaps it’s time Allen also steps out of his proverbial classroom and leaves the books behind for a bit. After all, as Camus wrote, “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
Did he learn nothing from Midnight in Paris?