Philosophically Speaking, Allen's 'Irrational Man' Is Asking All The Right Questions
In Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, a couple of space creatures ask Allen's character Sandy Bates why he isn't funny anymore. You see, Allen stopped giving dazzling belly laughs a long time ago. He offers chuckles in his last dozen films or so, but his latest, Irrational Man, doesn't even do much of that.
It's a moral and intellectual drama that casts a clear and sometimes amused eye on human self-delusion and hypocrisy. Yet, when I think back on Allen's career, these are the best qualities in his movies, and that moral voice is what's been missing since the '90s.
Irrational Man centers on Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a controversial philosophy professor just hired at a small New England college. The school is a comfortable, self-satisfied place; students and faculty look wealthy and confident. But Abe is blunt and unruly with a reputation for having affairs – often with students – so the campus is both nervous and attracted by the possibility of disruption.
Rita (Parker Posey), the wife of a fellow teacher who is conveniently out of town, tries to jump Abe's bones in her first minutes on screen. One of Abe's students, Jill (Emma Stone), can't stop talking about professor Lucas, this incredibly interesting man, who's lived such an interesting life and done so many fascinating things. Pretty soon, Jill is calling him Abe, and she doesn't understand why her boyfriend is so jealous, until it's too late.
Woody Allen has had fun with philosophy since he did standup comedy in the 1960s, when he claimed to have been expelled from NYU for cheating on a test – he'd looked into the soul of the student next to him. But Allen also takes philosophy seriously.
Abe Lucas teaches moral philosophy and Existentialism. He gets his students – especially the comely Jill – to think about things like whether all lies are wrong or if some lies are good, for instance, lying to the Nazis who inquire if Anne Frank's family is hiding in the attic. Abe poses the idea that any kind of action is better than simply sitting still in contemplation of abstract moral quandaries.
Then, Abe and Jill overhear four people talking about a local judge who has treated a woman unfairly. Abe decides he must undertake the Existential act of doing something. He does it; it lifts him from his doldrums, and it makes him the most morally lost character in the movie.
Woody Allen is a good visual artist. Irrational Man is full of talk, but the talk matters, and visually the film radiates the uncertainties that plague the people. Allen makes characters' dilemmas visible with unexpected angles in close-ups or he puts people in uncomfortable positions and light.
Allen has also changed his color palette. The shimmering yellows and golds are gone. Irrational Man comes with tougher colors – reds, deep browns and orange. They go along with a demand that characters look harder at themselves and ask more of themselves than they've had to do in the past 20 years.
No one in this movie feels the oppressive weight of basic needs like food and shelter, Woody Allen doesn't seem to know anything at all about those problems. Abe tells his students that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, and the movie gets you there. Allen makes philosophic questions and situations important – he forces these comfortable people to feel the discomfort of facing moral dilemmas in their actual lives, not just in classrooms or amusing dinner conversations. Rita eventually has to deal with a real husband, not someone who is always out of town. Jill gets smacked by the collision between her rich-kid self-indulgence and the fact of real criminality in her life.
Woody Allen hasn't shown this much bite for too long a time. He's still doesn't get it that the world of articulate intellectuals is not just white and only located on New York's upper East Side, or elegant New England campuses. But otherwise in Irrational Man, he knows what to ask.