Irrational Man is written and directed by Woody Allen and stars Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey
In the Physics, Aristotle argues that nature does not work by chance, but instead natural beings seek their telos or purpose. Chance occurs when threads of causality come together without a clear telos. The interplay of chance and purpose, of theory versus action, serve as the basis of Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man. Allen explores the sometimes unfulfilling conclusion of purposely chosen paths in life and the heady thrill of the gut choice made in a chance moment.
The film is named after the 1958 book Irrational Man, William Barrett’s introduction to existential philosophy. Allen’s “irrational man” is troubled philosophy professor Abe Lucas (played by Joaquin Phoenix) introduced as he starts a teaching job at a leafy New England college. Abe’s reputation precedes him, and he turns out to be just as erudite and temperamental as rumoured. He rambles through lectures on Kant and Kierkegaard, and mopes around campus, oftentimes with a flask in hand. Two people immediately drawn to his dark character are fellow professor Rita Richards (played by Parker Posey) and an impressionable student named Jill (played by Emma Stone). Abe laments to both that he spent his life purposely trying to make a difference in the world through political protest and humanitarian work only to realise it all amounted to little. Kierkegaard’s “dizzying” absolute freedom of choice features prominently in Abe’s lectures as he contemplates how little his deliberate choices have created any meaning in his life. Yet, Allen’s philosophy professor would still prefer ultimately unsatisfying action rather than empty philosophical theory, referring to the latter as “verbal masturbation.” Action, although not necessarily fulfilling, is still better than hollow pontification. Perhaps Allen is channelling Marx, who said, “philosophers have only interpreted the world … [t]he point, however, is to change it.” Abe mourns the fact he wanted to be a “world changer and ended up a passive intellectual.”
Abe is so mired in a general malaise that it sometimes borders on recklessness. He accompanies Jill to a student party, only to demonstrate Russian roulette to the other party goers, calmly explaining the odds are in his favour as he continues to pull the trigger to their screams of protest. Abe, tired of a life searching for purpose in his theoretical work and humanitarian work, embraces chance. Later Abe tells Jill it was an existential lesson better than she’d find in any textbook.
A chance encounter gives Abe the opportunity for giving his life the meaning it lacks. While in a diner, he and Jill overhear a woman helplessly describing losing custody of her children due to a judge’s blatant favouritism (warning: spoilers coming). The woman comments she wishes things were different, but Abe realises his action could bring about real change. Even though the woman is a complete stranger, Abe decides it might bring meaning to his life to kill the judge in question, guaranteeing the woman’s case be assigned to a new judge. Abe is exhilarated as he “embraces his freedom to choose” while planning to kill the “rotten” judge. Unlike his theoretical musings or his humanitarian work, Abe sees this anonymous murder as the chance to make a real difference in a particular person’s life, to actually solve her problem. In contrast to his life as a philosopher, Abe tells Jill the trick is not to examine things too closely and to act from the gut. Committing the murder gives Abe a sense of “accomplishment,” filling his life with joy and meaning, not to mention better sex. In a nod to existentialism, Abe explains, “I made a choice I believed in and I followed through.” He views killing the judge as a creative act.
Jill slowly starts to suspect Abe was involved in the judge’s death. The final piece of evidence that convinces her is a copy of Crime and Punishment on Abe’s desk with the judge’s name written in the margins as well as Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil.” When confronted with Jill’s suspicion, Abe confesses, explaining instead of “rationalising” that he acted and helped this woman.
Yet the stride of Allen’s film is broken in the end. As Abe considers what to do after Jill threatens to go to the police, Allen resorts to a contrived ending that fails to philosophically grapple with the ramifications of Abe’s actions. The film ends with a literal thud without attempting to answer the hard questions it raises: is Abe so committed to an action initiated after a chance encounter that he would accept the consequences? Was the outcome of the murder proof that decisions “made from the gut” aren’t any better than ones from purposeful deliberation? Allen never quite develops his characters in Irrational Man, instead using them to deliver a string of philosophical quotes and to contrast different philosophical perspectives without ever arriving at a clear endorsement of any of them.