Irrational Man (2015) is the story of “a tormented philosophy professor [who] finds a will to live when he commits an existential act.” Woody Allen’s latest film seeks to explore the meaning of life — do we have a purpose or are we simply moving forward with no real connection to the world around us? These ideas, though grand in concept, are presented in a very scripted way. From the very beginning of the film we are told how we should feel about the main character, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, and about life itself. However, the subsequent actions of the characters contradict with what we’ve been told to feel about them.
The film is seen and heard through the eyes and voiceover thoughts of the two man characters, Abe Lucas and Jill Pollard. Abe Lucas, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is an educator who finds himself teaching a summer course in Ethical Strategies at a fictional college in Rhode Island. Lucas is a moody alcoholic who can’t seem to find stimulation in any aspect of his life. Jill Pollard (played by Emma Stone), on the other hand, is an A student eager to make a good impression.
The first 40 minutes of the film focus almost solely on Jill’s growing fondness and borderline obsession with the idea of Abe Lucas as her lover. She often describes him as a deep and interesting man, although she recognizes that he is greatly troubled. Her romanticized thoughts turn tangible when she breaks things off with her current boyfriend in order to fulfill her personal fantasies with Lucas. From that point on, it’s difficult to connect with Jill, or even like her as a character.
The same goes for Abe, who starts off as a rather unlikeable character until he unearths a newfound will to live life to the fullest after overhearing a woman talking about a terrible situation she’s found herself in. Abe decides to act for ‘the greater good’ and kill the man responsible for troubling this woman, which creates a contradictory dialogue in Abe Lucas’s head; murder is fundamentally nonsensical, yet he argues that he is committing a moral act by eliminating this person from the world. Thus, Irrational Man is a chess match of philosophical and moral principles.
The film takes a dramatic turn when Jill discovers the crime Abe has committed, and threatens to go to the police. Abe has ‘opened the door for more murder’ as Jill puts it, which proves true when he tries to take her life in order to protect his newfound morality. Viewers find that the film ends with Woody Allen’s signature ironic twist.
Aesthetically pleasing as always, Irrational Man is an irrational movie that only scratches the surface of what it means to live by a moral code, yet it is sure to leave the viewer exhausted and in something of an existential crisis. This film poses many questions and gives few answers. Perhaps this was the intention all along — we leave feeling just as in the dark as we came.