When I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine who had been a philosophy major—for a semester at least—listened to me as I once again railed against religious belief and argued that it would be better for humanity to turn to philosophy instead. I no longer remember what I had in mind, though knowing the inflection of my thought my guess is that I was referring to the spare rigor of existentialism. However, I had limited knowledge of philosophy, and my friend knew this, so he warned me that philosophy didn’t address the kinds of issues I seemed to think it did. It was, he assured me, no substitute for religion and spirituality nor was it trying to be.
It’s too bad that nobody told Abe Lucas, the tortured, bad-boy philosopher played by Joaquin Phoenix who stirs the slumbering denizens of Braylin College to life in Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man. Abe arrives at Braylin with a reputation as a rebel and something of a lady’s man. Instead, he proves to be paunchy, depressed, and nursing a budding drinking problem. Why? Well, he has come to the realization that his life has no meaning and the existentialists aren’t doing their part to help him cope with his ennui. Worse, neither are the amorous attentions of Jill Pollard and Professor Rita Richards—played by Emma Stone and Parker Posey, respectively.
But the women are in luck once Abe decides to murder a judge after overhearing in a café a complete stranger complain about him. Then, he’s more than ready for action, though he could have spared everyone a lot of pain had he just gotten a prescription for Viagra. Abe follows through on his plan by poisoning the judge and, as one would expect, his act proves to be both his salvation and his undoing.
Overall, the film is modestly successful. As with Match Point, Allen’s 2005 crime drama, several scenes in Irrational Man suggest Allen has some skill with generating suspense. In one the movie’s best moments, the Pollards, Jill and her parents, come up with theories about how the judge could possibly have been poisoned in public by a person he seems not to have known. Lucas joins in, playing devil’s advocate by poking holes in their theories. As the theories zero in on what Lucas actually did, the tension increases, especially since Lucas seems to be steering the Pollard’s toward the right answer. It’s a technique effectively borrowed from Hitchcock, though I suspect he would have done more with the scene than Allen.
Still, as with almost all of Allen’s recent films, Irrational Man is underdeveloped, more like an idea for a movie than a fully realized one. The plot developments, while promising, aren’t fully explored, much as one imagines are the ideas in the undergraduate philosophy papers that Lucas denigrates. One wonders, for that matter, what grade Lucas would give the ideas in Irrational Man, since the thinness of the drama forces one to grapple with them. Lucas’ complaint that students just parrot others’ ideas, offering nothing of their own, echoes like a squawk in the jungle in light of the film’s drama.
What one begins to realize as the action unfolds is that, had Allen made Irrational Man forty years ago, he would have starred in it. Suddenly, the comic potential of the movie is revealed. Since some of the debates between Lucas and Pollard about the ethics of killing an evil person recall those in Love and Death that Allen and Diane Keaton toss about with comic zing as they anguish over whether or not to assassinate Napoleon, it is clear that it wouldn’t take much rewriting to transform Irrational Man into a comedy. It would just be a matter of emphasis. For example, instead of Phoenix’s earnest performance—a performance that helps elevate Allen’s sketchy material—imagine Allen’s neurotic skittishness and the improbabilities of the plot make hilarious sense. It’s too bad, too, because this could have been a very funny movie. Once upon a time. When I was an undergraduate.