"Irrational Man" Review: Woody Allen's Existentialism 101
"Irrational Man" considers the human will to meaning and capacity for evil.
Posted Aug 17, 2015
Whether he publicly acknowledges it or not, Irrational Man, the intriguing yet appropriated title of Woody Allen's new film, was one of my required texts (William Barrett, 1958) back in a freshman philosophy course I took on existentialism seemingly several lifetimes ago. As such, it telegraphs the, for Woody, not-so-new but persisting and, in this case, explicitly and insightfully depicted themes of this surprisingly enjoyable and well-made movie: existential despair, the problem of meaninglessness, aloneness and loneliness, the search for love, ethics, freedom of choice and responsibility for those choices, the need at times to decide and act rather than ruminate, the irrationality and apparent randomness of the universe, morality, mortality, human potentiality, and the ever-present possibility of falling into evil despite good intentions.
Readers familiar with Allen's films and/or with existential philosophy and psychology might imagine Irrational Man, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, to suffer from, as Woody himself would say, "heavyosity." Certainly some of his previous existentially themed films, like Interiors, for instance, did. But they would be mistaken, since the director wields a relatively light and deft hand in addressing these "ultimate concerns," to borrow existential theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich's term. Particularly impressive is Mr. Phoenix's substantial performance as Abe Lucas, a withdrawn, endarkened, pot-bellied, middle-aged philosophy professor and author in the midst of a full-blown mid-life crisis. Less successful but still charming is Ms. Stone's take as a precocious, beautiful, brilliant but very naive young college student, Jill, who falls for the older and ostensibly wiser Abe precisely because of his perceived combination of brilliance, vulnerability, and angst-ridden torturedness.
What happens is a cautionary tale of how precarious and dangerous a mid-life or other existential crisis can be, for both the person going through it and for those who care for him or, as in the case of Allen's Blue Jasmine, her. Professor Lucas has careened headlong into nihilism, taken to drink, lost his sense of purpose and meaning in life, and become creatively blocked, impotent and suicidal (at one point playing Russian Roulette with a loaded pistol at a student party), all the while spouting pithy quotes from Continental philosophers Sartre, Kierkegaard, Kant and Heidegger, a heady combination his students and co-workers clearly find quite romantic and downright irresistable. Despite being preceded by a wicked reputation as a womanizer, it seems Abe had always as a younger man wanted to do good, selflessly volunteering to help others after natural disasters and being an activist for those things he truly valued and felt passionately about. But then something happened. There are hints provided that he has been severely traumatized by life, having lost his mother to suicide when twelve, later being betrayed and abandoned by his wife and best friend, and, perhaps the final straw, having another close buddy blown up by a landmine in the Middle East. These are existential crises, major losses, from which he evidently never recovered, but rather resulted eventually in a profound frustration, anger, rage, embitterment toward life, existential despair and morbid depression.
When the lonely and bored wife of a fellow professor (Parker Posey as Rita), and then his already spoken for student (Stone), throw themselves at him, Abe initially tries to be noble and good, fending off their sexual advances, at least for a little while. But eventually he gives in to getting involved with both, later resulting in breaking up both women's long-term relationships. But this, and having their blind love and admiration, gives him no real satisfaction. Not until he happens quite by accident upon what he perceives as an opportunity to do something good, something important, something significant--to rid the world of a biased judge and the needless suffering he has supposedly inflicted upon others by murdering him--does his despair, depression, apathy and malaise suddenly disappear. (For possible parallels to Mr. Allen's own contentious court battles, see this fellow PT blogger's post.) Like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Abe decides, after overhearing a conversation of strangers, to take action to make the world a tiny bit better than it is now by killing this "roach," referencing perhaps Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Taking the decision to act, to do something, enlivens him again, lifts him out of his clinical despair (see my prior post) and restores his capacity to enjoy existence and appreciate life's sublime pleasures once more.The fact that he has rationalized that this evil deed is instead good, almost a delusional level of self-deception, completely escapes him, narcissistically seeing himself as some kind of Nietzschean superman who is morally "beyond good and evil." Abe is convinced that by committing this single crime, he is following what might be existentialist Ernest Becker's counsel in The Denial of Death (a book directly referred to by Allen in Annie Hall), that all any of us can do to make life meaningful is contribute something to the world while we are still alive, despite the fact that it is the equivalent to dropping a minuscule droplet of water into a vast cosmic ocean.
Abe actually goes through with his carefully considered, "creative" homicidal plan successfully, having committed an apparently perfect crime, since no one could possibly link him to the murder victim in any way. Except, of course, his student, Jill, whom he was with on a date in a diner when first overhearing the judge's name and alleged bad behavior. He has no bad conscience or compunction about taking the judge's life, nor about another man later being arrested and charged with the crime. When Jill finally figures out that he had indeed done the killing, she is appalled and, despite still being in love with him, threatens to turn him in to the police, pointing out that, ethically, committing one evil deed opens the door to committing another. Which, without spoiling the ending too badly, is precisely what happens here.
Ultimately, Abe recognizes that his life had become meaningless and without purpose, that all his philosophizing was, as he tells his students, a form of "verbal masturbation," and that his choice to commit murder had provided him with a raison d'etre, a renewed sense of purpose, freedom and power in life. Indeed, to take a life, of an insect, animal, and especially of a human being, is an extreme act of power over another, which often feeds into the psychopath's, serial killer's, or mass murderer's deep sense of disempowerment, helplessness, and impotence. It also provides an outlet for his or her repressed rage and hatred toward parents, people, authority figures, God, and the world. As existential analyst Viktor Frankl, whose writings Woody Allen is also almost certainly familiar with, and others observe, when we experience an "existential vacuum," a loss or absence of meaning and purpose in life, there is always the risk that this emptiness will be filled by something neurotic, negative or evil. Nature abhors a vacuum. The inner necessity to create and assert oneself in the world can be expressed constructively or destructively. We, as individuals, are responsible for how we deal with life's inevitable existential crises, and for ethically choosing between evil and good, destructiveness and creativity, disintegration or integration of the personality, in our efforts to resolve or weather them. Tragically, sometimes in desperation to find or create some sense of meaning, purpose, significance or recognition in life, we can be tempted to engage in evil by irrationally disguising it to ourselves as good. And, in so doing, we sooner or later, in some way or another, fall prey to the consequences of that same evil deed.