Joan Ullman M.A.

Uncharted Customs

Woody, Again - Irrational Man

Still embattled, Woody Allen lobs a revenge fantasy against Mia Farrow

Posted Aug 13, 2015

It’s doubtless fitting that the opening of Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man, nearly coincided with the anniversary of my first year as a Psychology Today blogger. Last year, in Woody–Mia  Redux, I wrote about how, twenty-two years after I covered their bitter custody fight for this magazine, I'd largely sympathized with Mia Farrow. At the hearing's end, I felt so disillusioned by testimony about Woody Allen's reported lack of regard for most of Mia's adopted children, his over-involvement with their one young, jointly adopted daughter, Dylan, and the morally unseemliness of his wooing (and later wedding,) Mia's older, adopted South Korean daughter, Soon-Yi, I'd vowed never to attend another film of his.  But as a life-long Woody Allen fan, my resolution lasted less than a year. I soon found my way back into movie theaters where again, I could not help laughing at, and enjoying - even if, on a somewhat different, diminished level  - the film maker's cinematic wit and brilliance.

My guilt over failing to stick to my resolution was lessened by what I continued to read about the pair. My questions about what looked to be Mia’s continuing adoption mania, and her unending anti-Woody proselytizing, eventually took me from Mia’s camp into Woody’s. 

But just when he seems at the peak of his career – a top-selling film, Magic in the Moonlight, a recent play on Broadway, Bullets Over Broadway, and a first-time TV series pending on Amazon -Woody’ Allen's been under a cloud.

Last year’s reprisal of old, never charged, molestation charges from his decades-old court battle by his still bitter ex-lover/ ex-movie star muse, Mia Farrow, echoed by the now grown adopted son and daughter at the heart of the custody battle, have introduced a new generation of movie goers to the  dubious moral choices in Woody's  past. Not even  his  seemingly stable and happy, two-decade-long marriage to Soon-Yi, and their parenting of two, reportedly charming, well-adjusted  teenaged daughters,has cushioned  him from disparagement by today’s hyper-alert, politically correct fans as well  as critics – viewers poised to pounce even at any  imagined hint of the perverse.

Dave Boneshank/Wickepedia
Source: Dave Boneshank/Wickepedia

Given its many tepid reviews, I went to this new, 45th Woody Allen written and directed film braced for disappointment. I was happily surprised. I thought Irrational one of Woody's better films in recent years. It doesn’t feature another great performance like  Oscar winner Cate Blanchette's in Blue Jasmine.  It also lacks that vaulting, imaginative, comedic genius that made me and many of my friends laugh through encore viewings of Woody’’s /historic/rom/ com, Midnight in Paris. But contrary to what many of his critics contend, Irrational is not just the latest version of  Woody's younger woman-older man themes. Nor is the film, as other critics claim, just another rehashing of his sardonic, bleak view of life’s meaningless, such as he’s examined in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and  other films.

Instead,Irrational gives us something new. It could be viewed as Woody's belated, darkly comic revenge fantasy against Mia Farrow for the bitter fight she successfully waged against him 22 years ago for custody of their three  adopted children: fourteen-year-old Moses, their 6-year-old daughter, Dylan, and the boy-genius/ presumed biological son of Woody and Mia, formerly known as Satchel, now Ronan Farrow: the late, heralded, albeit short-lived MSNBC anchor/turned brother/broadcaster at large and fellow out -to -pasture, newscaster with fallen NBC anchor, Brian Williams.

In this film, Joaquin Phoenix is the unlikely cinematic/Woody stand-in, and happily, Phoenix eschews any attempt to imitate the film-maker's all too familiar, slightly stammering vocal inflections. Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, an alcoholic, burnt out, bulging-bellied ladies man/ philosopher, who has gone from social activist in Darfur and New Orleans to down-in-the-dumps nihilist. His last-ditch job, teaching summer school in the picturesque Rhode Island College, Braylin, introduces him to two bright, alluring women: unhappily wed science professor, Rita (a ditzy Parker Posey in a dyed blond pouf), and eager young philosophy student, Jill (Emma Stone). Both women instantly find their mission: becoming the muse Abe needs to ease his `pain’ and unblock his sexual and creative spirits.  

Their efforts fail. No longer able even to find his `usual distraction in the orgasm,’ Abe continues to spout his glum philosophical bon mots: `hell is other people’( a line from Jean Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit); The Sickness Unto Death ( the famous title of a Soren Kierkegaard  book); "philosophy is verbal masturbation"( a line evidently by Abe). 

Then chance intervenes. One day, seated in a diner, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation in the booth behind them. A woman tearfully tells her three companions that she can't sleep, she can't afford to file any more legal motions, and she’s about to lose custody of her 2 young daughters, all because of a corrupt judge who's "totally in the pocket of her husband".  

The longer Abe listens, the more he perks up.  He leaves the diner with Jill, a new bounce in his step. In the overheard talk about this terrible injustice, Abe has found not his muse, but his mission - `the meaningful act’ he’s been searching for.’    

At home, reflecting that it's `choice which gives life meaning,’ he decides `to choose action…to take matters into (his) own hands.’ He resolves to murder the judge.

Abe has been reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Now, like that novel’s misguided protagonist, Raskolnikov, Abe rationalizes that ridding the world of a despicable person like the judge will be a morally good, not an evil, act.  Better yet, like Robert Walker’s crazed Bruno in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, he’ll be able to commit the perfect murder. Unlike other people tried before the judge, Abe has no motive to murder him. The two have never met; they're total strangers, so he’ll never be suspected. For emphasis, the film maker inserts a carnival scene right out of Strangers as well.

The more Abe plots, the more he unblocks, i.e. returns to his prior zestful (manic?) state, his appetite for food, for sex - even for resuming work on his long untouched opus about Heidegger and the Nazis -  all restored.

After stalking the judge for days, Abe devises a way to carry out his perfect murder.  And when he reads about the murder in the papers, he exults."Isn’t the world a better place without this judge?" he asks Jill during a celebratory dinner.  Doesn’t that woman in the diner now "have a fair shot" in court?

The  joke in the film lies in how the legal situations involving the custody cases faced by the real-life Woody Allen, and the reel-life Woody character, Abe, diverge. Irrational  is  a bitter, ironic – and for those who recall it – hilarious  - reversal of the actual situation Woody faced with Mia. In their legal wrangling,  it was Woody, who waged a prolonged, costly, and, finally, futile legal battle. This was thanks to the witty, erudite Justice Elliott Wilk, who, many observers agreed, sided with Mia in almost every particular; his scathing decision eventually cost Woody not just custody,  but  such limited  access to his children as to make  any sort of relationship with them such as  he’d craved,  impossible.  (As I noted in my blog last year, Judge Wilk had expected Mia, aided by the children’s therapists, to eventually rebuild some sort of relationship with their father, not to leave them permanently estranged.  Wilk’s comparatively young death from cancer, at age 60, in 2002, precluded his learning – or attempting - to rectify his ruling’s unintended consequences.)

Consequently, the real life Woody Allen had, and still has, every motive to wish any biased family court judge - real, or fictional - dead.  What’s fun is seeing how Woody fictionalizes, i.e. reverses, his own legal case.  instead of a man – Woody – fighting a losing battle for custody, Abe, in Irrational, overhears a mother faced with the same potential  wrong as Woody Allen's. But in the film, a biased judge favors the father, not the mother. Consequently, it’s she who’s faced with losing custody - although not of two young sons and a daughter, as Woody was, but of her two young daughters.

Critics who believe that Abe is saved from his despair by the worshipful Jill, totally miss the point of this film.  There’s actually little sexual involvement between the two.  Abe spends the first half or more of the film warning Jill not to get involved. “You’re in love with the romance of being in love with a college professor,” he tells her.  And repeatedly,he urges her to stick with her doting (if dull) but loyal boyfriend, Roy.

When he finally succumbs to Jill’s relentless pursuit, their sexual relationship proves short lived.  Once the judge’s murder hits the papers, she becomes increasingly distraught - however despicable the murder victim, Jill still can’t condone a murder. Consequently Abe ‘s sexual energies get diverted onto trying to reassure her. 

I found Jill’s reaction to Abe’s post-murder behavior the film’s weakest part.   She was with him in the diner, she’s aware of his gleeful reaction to word of the judge’s death, she’s even brilliant at figuring out the how’s of the murder.   Her brilliance notwithstanding, however, she’s still stunned when campus gossip brings Abe under suspicion. 

Abe's spouting of philosophic truisms by Kant et al makes it tempting to view Irrational as another of Woody’s quirky explorations of the meaningless of life, the uselessness of philosophical dictums when faced with real life dilemmas. 

But even if the philosophical dialogue sometimes sounds stilted, if his view of campus life feels dated, and even if, like other great writers and artists, he is forever revisiting themes, or unresolved traumas from his own life (philosophic conundrums of mortality; taboo type romances between older men/younger women, or relationships verging on incest, between a husband with his wife’s sister), he still entertains. And at times, like other great artists, he also leaves us viewing some of these issues in a new light.  

In Irrational,  howwever, he probes deeper  than before. For the first time,   Woody deals directly with the legal trauma that cost him the loss of his adored adopted daughter, Dylan.  

But critics, perhaps partly misled by the comic dueling voice-over narrations of Jill and Abe, have been mostly unable to get it. At least one (The New York Post) has panned Irrational as Woody Allen’s “worst film ever.” Others  focus on the superficial murder trappings: the film's `thrills' and `suspense.'Out of dozens of reviews, I saw only one which grasped  Irrational's connection to Woody’s failed custody fight.

Woody Allen biographer(The Unruly Life of Woody Allen), and my friend, Marion Meade, with whom I saw this film, agrees. She stated that:

“As a biographer, I can see that many of his films can be connected to his life in some indirect way. Irrational stands out for its boldness in addressing one aspect of a    spectacularly messy life:  in this case, it’s his most painful, lifelong wound, and one that evidently will never heal: Woody’s loss of a beloved child, Dylan.

Marion Meade, Wickepedia
Source: Marion Meade, Wickepedia

Meade also  notes that: 

Woody's public today “prefers to  remember him for marrying a much younger woman -who some crazies believe, is his daughter. Nowadays Mia is less well recalled, due to her rare film appearances. Or she is remembered for a daughter accusing Woody of molestation, and for a son wishing he had been sired by Frank Sinatra.  In any case, these topics that attract public attention are sexual.  But the issues that still inflame Woody are not sexual but legal, matters that have been available in the public record for two decades, but are less titillating to the public than his intimate involvements with women.  In Irrational, he is able to safely drop one of his heartbreaks into the middle of a motion picture and no one notices. Doesn’t this give Woody the last laugh?"

But if this latest Woody Allen film is memorable for sending a message in a bottle to Team Mia, viewers can rightly wonder if anyone on Mia’s team really cares. For that tiny number of people who do get Woody’s joke, they may find Irrational, by this soon-to-turn-80-year-old filmmaker, disturbing and hilarious. Like me, they may also, even now, be eager to see his next summer’s film, already in production, with its new leads: Kristin Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg and Bruce Willis.