Irrational Man is a hopeless triumph of the conscience

Irrational Man is a hopeless triumph of the conscience July 27, 2015

Review of Irrational Man, Directed by Woody Allen

I am not a philosopher or the son of a philosopher, and so I won’t presume to say with much certainty whether writer and director Woody Allen’s philosophical ramblings in his latest film, Irrational Man, are on point and realistic. A lot of big names get shout-outs, though – Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidegger – and the protagonist’s musings surrounding them are at least interesting, and often funny.

The film’s title, Irrational Man, comes from William Barrett’s excellent book recounting and presentation of the history of existentialism. As such, it doesn’t come as any surprise to find the film begin with college professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) taking up a teaching position at a new school in the midst of despair, melancholy, and meaninglessness. He has led a deliberate, passionate life, full of sexual affairs, political marches, and published works – the sort of things one might expect from a talented intellectual who derives meaning from the fact of his own existence. And yet as he looks back he sees nothing but a legacy of vanity, a trail of writings amounting to “verbal masturbation,” abstract theory that ultimately has no value or bearing on this bulls*** existence of ours.

Enter Jill (Emma Stone), who is mostly believable as the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed student who finds professor Abe a little too interesting. Her narration, through which she recounts her fascination with and subsequent attraction to Abe, comes across as something in-between a term paper and a diary. Given that she’s a college student, this sounds about what you’d expect, except that at times she feels too jovial and, well, normal, to be stirring up a fling with a philosophy professor.

Image Source: Wikimedia
Image Source: Wikimedia

Abe assents to spending time with Jill and entertain her questions, but in his despair he refuses to let the relationship escalate. Everything changes, however, when he happens upon the possibility of committing a truly existential act.

There’s something absurd, comical, and beautiful about Abe’s act, which I won’t specify to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that it is morally wrong by almost any person’s reckoning, but Abe is such an intelligent, pitiable character that the deed feels just a little less revolting – laughable in a black comedy sort of way. It is beautiful for its simplicity, its concreteness, its pretense of justice and impartiality, and its impact on Abe’s countenance. It transforms him from a life of despair and emptiness into cheer and vivacity. He doesn’t become a monster (at least not at first). On the contrary he seems to become more human. The act “works,” pragmatically speaking, as an existential act by giving him the high of having experienced a truly unique act that makes the world a better place, but like any wrong, it ultimately proves untenable as a philosophy of life.

The most important lesson from “Irrational Man” is that it dares to confront the fact that philosophy and ideas are dangerous. They’re scary. They can’t be safely contained in a classroom (as our education system too often attempts to do these days). Abe illustrates this brilliantly and insanely at a house party with a number of students when one of them gets out her father’s revolver and jokingly explains Russian roulette. Abe pops the bullet in, gives it a spin, and points it at his head. “Favorable odds,” he reasons wryly, and pulls the trigger. The students freak out. He does it again.

That’s what existentialism is all about. As Albert Camus said, “there is only one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

(MINOR SPOILER) In the end, Allen’s story finds a sort of redemption in the triumph of the conscience. When Jill learns the true nature of the existential act that brings meaning and vivacity to Abe’s life, she finds it revolting. Her gut tells her that it is just plain wrong. Simple as that. Try as Abe might to construct his own systems and codes, and try as he might to delve into the self for some sort of deeper light of truth, the law of God is written on our hearts. We can try to suppress it, but we cannot escape it.

Hope appears in the film only as a brief glimmer. The one line that has any sort of eternal potential comes as a throwaway comment intended for wry comedic effect – a tragic absurdity within Allen’s own tragic absurdity of a story. Jill and Abe are sitting in a diner, discussing the despondency and pointlessness of Abe’s life. In an attempt to find some relatable experience to share with Abe that might provide him some comfort, Jill points out that for Kierkegaard, despair is the sickness unto death, and yet he found a way to live with and overcome it.

“But Kierkegaard, in the end, was a Christian,” Abe says. “Wouldn’t that be comforting?”

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