Somehow I couldn’t help enjoying Woody Allen’s film An Irrational Man, but it was like a question in a philosophy exam turned into a film. The question would be: You are an existentialist who has lost all meaning and joy in life, mainly because you feel that all your thinking and writing has zero impact on the real world. If you were to commit a murder that would bring benefit to somebody would you feel better? The answer to the question in Woody Allen’s film is “Hell, yes,” but there’s a twist.
Allen makes too many films, one a year for 30 years. He never lacks for inspiration, but he lacks inspiration that inspires. To film critics he’s become a sad, even a ludicrous, figure. But good actors still want to work with him. Why? They’ve loved his old films, hope that they can be part of something as good as Annie Hall. That looks unlikely to happen.
In An Irrational Man Joaquín Phoenix plays a disillusioned philosophy professor. He’s a brilliant teacher but finds no meaning in philosophy. Whatever he does makes not a scintilla of difference. In the film he asks philosophical questions, quotes Sartre and Kierkegaard in a way that makes the viewer squirm. At one point he says, “Existentialists believe that nothing happens until you reach rock bottom.”
He’s reached rock bottom. Devilishly attractive, he hasn’t had an erection in a year. Love is beyond him. It’s not clear why he doesn’t kill himself. Perhaps he lacks the belief for such a positive move. He arrives at a new college. Immediately a professor of chemistry throws herself at him. (In all of Allen’s films young women throw themselves at older men.) He can’t be bothered. Eventually he goes to bed with her but remains impotent. Meanwhile, one of his students (Emma Stone), despite having a committed boyfriend, becomes obsessed with him. She wants to save him.
He resists her, until in a cafe one day they overhear a woman complaining about how a corrupt judge will give custody of her children to her heartless and abusive husband. Here at last, thinks the philosophy professor, is a chance to make a difference in the world, by murdering the judge. Plus it’s an intellectual challenge, to commit the perfect, motiveless murder. Of course, it’s not motiveless: the murder, even the challenge of the murder, will bring him back to life.
And so it does. He makes love to the chemistry professor as she’s never been loved before. He starts an affair with the student, taking her to sexual levels she’s never before achieved. Meanwhile, he plans and executes the murder. Once it’s done he has no remorse: he remains inspired by an act that has made a difference, done good.
His murder seems like the perfect murder, but eventually the student works out he is the murderer. Here are more philosophical questions: whether to report that your lover is a murderer, whether to stay with him. She decides she must report him. He logically thinks what is the difference between murdering one and murdering two? Once you’re a murderer you’re a murderer. But his plan to murder her backfires.
The film is silly. The characters are shallow, the plot unconvincing, and the dialogue at times embarrassing. But it’s fun, amusing. I watched it all the way through and wasn’t bored. I presume that this was Woody Allen playing out his anxieties, searching for meaning, diverting himself from his approaching death. Most of us have to do that in our own heads or in bad poems, but Allen because of his record, a distinguished but patchy one, can do that in a film with first rate actors. Lucky him, no not lucky–he’s deserved the privilege. And us, his ageing and loyal audience, enjoy his indulgence enough to watch the whole film. But I’m glad I didn’t pay to watch it ( I watched it sloshed on a plane).