Some of Woody Allen’s best films deal with the problem of absolute ethics in a world that is full of moral ambiguity. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS beings the epitome of his musings on the subject, with lesser, but no less satisfying efforts such as MATCH POINT continuing the dialogue. In IRRATIONAL MAN, Allen has crafted another little masterpiece that pits human nature against philosophy, resulting in a film that is funny, smart, and deeply troubling.
Here he is examining situational ethics in the person of Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), a total wreck of a man taking up a summer teaching post at Brayland University. His course is, suitably enough, the study of those ci-mentioned situational ethics as they relate to the great philosophers of times past. The necessity of telling the truth at all times as espoused by Kant, Kierkergaard’s insistence on the absolute freedom of choice. Don’t worry, those ideas, along with a smattering of Simone de Beauvoir and an uncredited nod to Nietzsche are the background for the film’s lively plot which find Abe slipping down the proverbial slippery slope from the despair of passivity to the trans-moral delight of action.
Abe, is we learn at the start, is in a funk. After a brilliant start to his career as a modern philosopher, he is suffering blocks of many kinds, including the most pernicious: writers and sexual performance. Fortunately, the summer gig affords him the attention of two women pining to assist him with both. They would be Rita (Parker Posey), the randy chemistry professor stuck in a marriage she longs to flee, and Jill (Emma Stone), the perky and intellectually curious senior taking Abe’s class who is entranced by his existential despair, if only because it makes him more interesting than her adoring and rocks-steady boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley). There is, of course, a university rule against dating one’s student. There is, of course, a moral imperative not to commit adultery, but in the hierarchy of moral transgressions, the barely cause a blip, though if one wanted to philosophize, and Allen is inviting us to do so, the case can be made that is Abe had behaved in a moral fashion, none of the events to follow would have occurred. Or, if they had, would not have happened in quite the same way.
Suffice to say that Jill and Abe overhear a conversation that leads Abe to conclude that sometimes murder is the right answer. The seduction of taking action is irresistible. That it also solves at least one of his blocks is also irresistible. So does lying, thieving, and a host of other sins that, in context, are as seductive to us in the audience as to Abe. The case he makes for his actions, all of them, are so compelling that the larger questions become irksome details that we are tempted to swat aside like so many troublesome gnats.
The film is well driven by that ongoing dialogue, which is just natural enough to be credible as real life, and just arch enough to remind us that this is as much a dialectic as a movie. Phoenix’s articulate dissipation is palpable, as his animation when Abe finally finds a way to make a difference in the real world. Stone is a fine foil with a cool assurance to Jill’s infatuation that is as sweetly innocent as it is ill-advised. She also has that wondrous ability to let us see what she is thinking without overstating it. A moment of revelation registers in the barely perceptible change in her face’s muscle tone, a change that is plain even while wearing sunglasses at the time.
This is why the film is so resonant and engrossing. We are at all times on both sides of Abe’s arguments, but never quite in equal measure, spurred on by the conversations these characters have as they attempt to sort through their feelings and how they should feel about those very feelings. Hence the title. Man as in humankind.