Cinema’s obsession with the idea of a perfect murder is quite grotesque. The macabre fascination only cements what Francois Truffaut once said, “Film lovers are sick people.” Perfect murders are a form of intellectual freak show, and Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s newest feature, tackles on the visual and physical allure of taking a person’s life. A much less heavy-handed effort than the director’s previous Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man stays light while dissecting the ennui of existing.
Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a philosophy professor, arrives at the campus of the fictional Braylin University a broken man, suffering from a messy divorce and the untimely death of a friend in Iraq. Abe is often filmed from the waist up, exposing his less than attractive physicality. The guy does not walk; he lumbers around with his big belly. Yet women are inexplicably drawn to him, precisely because of his mysterious and gloomy demeanors. He first attracts Rita (Parker Posey), another professor at the college who is an oddball character trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. Rita proves to be an instant match. She drinks just as much as Abe does and behaves in a larger-than-life manner. On the other hand, Jill (Emma Stone), a wide-eyed and fresh-faced college student, also finds herself romantically involved with the older man. Despite of all the female attention, Abe remains uninspired, inactive and dangerously depressed. Out of pure chance, Abe overhears a random conversation that leads him to commit the most meaningful act of his life: planing a perfect murder of a judge in order to help a woman gain child custody.
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Irrational Man is an ambivalent critique of the intellectuals. Abe constantly feels that his works are mere words and without definite action, his life amounts to nothing. Abe’s inability to find meaning in life recalls Aristotle’s definition of happiness as the goal of human existence, a feat that can only be achieved through a balanced lifestyle. As a result, the minute Abe decides that killing the judge would turn him into a happier man, his daily routine changes. He eats healthier, even exercises and has some sex. Nevertheless, while theoretically and philosophically speaking, Abe’s life is now on the right track, his goal is a misguided design. Kant would argue that the professor’s murder plan is born, not out good will, but of a selfish desire to improve himself. Interestingly enough, early in the film, Abe himself declares that philosophy is impractical and far removed from real life. In the end, the supposedly “real” actions that he takes are simply a mechanical application of the same principles that he has criticized. Abe is another character in the long line of Woody Allen’s self-loathing intellectuals who despises textbook living and at the same time, fails to rip themselves from their theoretical shells.
Irrational Man is not, in any way, a romantic film or a comedy. The film is a tragedy that tries to laugh at life’s absurdities, but ultimately has to stifle its own screams. Throughout the majority of the movie, the audience rarely gets to see the real Abe. His voice-over is less of a confession than a self-manufactured glamor of his own image. Most of the time, viewers perceive Abe through Jill’s girlish yearning or Rita’s midlife cling. In the end, as Jill becomes increasingly aware of Abe’s fractured mind, the film accordingly stays closer to his face, revealing a confused, hollow man who has romanticized his own despair to the point of repudiation. Similar to his writings, which Jill’s parents deem to be full of romantic proses without any substance, Abe ceases to be a real person and exists only as an ideal the moment he decides to take on the murder. Irrational Man sees life at its ugliest and refuses to romanticize existential angst. In others words, when faced with insurmountable problems, one should always do more than turning to dead philosophers.