by Tim Jones 8/14/15
Being a long-time fan of Woody Allen, I went to see his most recent film Irrational Man starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone. It is definitely a classic Woody Allen movie that explores themes that makes his films unique. He is the one writer and director that’s been able to put onto the silver screen intellectual themes and questions that you might find discussed in a philosophy or possibly even a religion class.
After watching Irrational Man it dawned on me that he really struggles with the dualities and ambiguities in life that each and everyone deals with on a daily basis, even for those who aren’t aware of it. One duality that is Woody Allen himself, either people love him or they hate him, which is irony he would appreciate.
In Irrational Man, I don’t want to give too much away because there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns that occur as the movie progresses and an ending that is pure Woody. But generally speaking it’s about Abe played by Joaquin Phoenix, a professor of philosophy who is starting his first year at a Rhode Island-based liberal arts college, which is Brown University with a different name.
He is depressed, drinks too much and seems to be stuck in a depressive funk. Emma Stone plays Jill as an adoring student who finds him attractive not just for his bohemian good looks but for his intellect. She wants to be the one that helps pull him out of his funk even at the expense of wrecking her relationship with a student she’s been dating for some time. Abe seems as though he’s on the fast-track to suicide until by happenstance he inadvertently finds his ‘purpose’ in life. He decides he wants to murder a local judge who has a bad reputation with locals and Abe wants to take drastic action when he and Emma learn that he is going to unfairly take away the custody of a woman’s two children. He suddenly becomes energetic and excited about everything, including finding his manhood in bed which he apparently had ‘lost’ because of the depressive funk he had been in for so long.
Describing the movie in any more detail would probably give more away than I should and would be spoiling it for anyone interested in seeing it. And it is definitely worth seeing. Allen is the only true intellectual movie-maker around who integrates the big life questions, mysteries and paradoxes, including those that have been around since the time of the great Greek philosophers, and elevates them to the big screen.
Woody Allen takes on the duality and ambiguity that exists in all of us. Are we spiritual beings or are we material beings. Good or evil. Are our identities just symbolic and impermanent or are they something tangible and lasting. Love/Hate relationships. Free will versus determinism. At one point in the movie Abe is criticized for his style over substance, or in other words, is he is dealing just in abstractions or with reality.
And one of the themes that Allen touches on again as he has in past movies, especially Crime and Misdemeanors, is morality versus amorality. Can one become like Nieztche’s ‘Superman’ (Ubermensch in German) or Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and rise above typical bourgeois morality by creating a moral universe of one’s own by removing God in the formation of one’s conscience. Allen makes this reference clear in one scene where Dostoevsky’s most widely-read novel Crime and Punishment (where Raskolnikov is the principal character) plays a part in the movie’s narrative and of justifying the creation of one’s own moral code.
What is missing in most of Allen’s movies, however, is precisely the role of God in the formation of conscience that Nietzsche and Dostoevsky address in their writings and the consequences that follow. Allen unknowingly portrays those consequences of God removed from our moral universe in most of his movies, including Irrational Man. It’s a little like trying to find answers to life’s big questions in a room full of fun house mirrors.
In the end however, I give him credit for at least trying to portray those that struggle with the ‘big questions’ at an intellectual level not seen in any other movies. With a lot of humor and irony he goes after those big questions of our existence, including the ultimate one, that of the duality of life and death. It is the one everyone also tries to come to terms with and understand each in their own way.
The following are two typical quotes by Allen, the first his own, the second from his movie Annie Hall: “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens” and “Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” The yin and yang of Woody.