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Article – ‘Irrational Man’ – Accidentally Relevant?


Posted September 14, 2015 by

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‘Irrational Man’ – Accidentally Relevant?

No one would call Woody Allen zeitgeisty – mainly because the word doesn’t exist. He is no longer a writer-director who creates trends. His films revolve around familiar themes – the meaningless of existence, the power of self-delusion, the absence of morality. Rarely is the world outside his movies acknowledged. In the last decade, he has travelled outside his adopted Manhattan – he was born in Brooklyn – to make films in London, Paris, Barcelona and Rome, putting the city in the title so we would notice: Midnight in Paris (2011), To Rome With Love (2012), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). But the cities are used generically. Rome and Barcelona are metropolises where characters are freer sexually. Paris (used twice) is for old-fashioned romance – dancing on the banks of the Seine in Everyone Says I Love You. London is a city for murder, as shown in a quartet of films: Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006), Cassandra’s Dream (2007) and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010). If the titles are forgettable, so I assure you, are the movies.

Irrational Man, Allen’s 44th feature film as writer-director, is on the face of it another foot-note in a career that, if it were a book, would resemble Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which took the form of a poem overwhelmed by footnotes. It falls into Allen’s murder melodramas. Why not a drama? Because most of us don’t kill people – if we did, the lines in Trader Joe would be shorter. Inspired by Agatha Christie and bad British television, murder takes place in Allen’s films with alarming regularity. But unlike the classic murder mystery, the killing in Irrational Man doesn’t take place out of desire. We are not in film noir territory, the lighting demands of which would put Allen in serious jeopardy of missing dinner – Allen’s last noir was Shadows and Fog (1992), a film in which Mia Farrow attacks Madonna; I said his films don’t resemble real life. Instead, we are in what passes for a metaphysical drama, in which the plotting of an extreme act gives the protagonist, university philosopher professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) a lust for life.

The set-up is comedic, but Allen has long since given up the impulse – in his movies at least – to write jokes. If Abe had shared his plan with the admiring student, Jill (Emma Stone) who put him within earshot of other people’s misery – the impetus for his desire to carry out a just act – then there could have been some humour. She would have told him he was being ridiculous. He would have been pompous and overbearing. They would have skipped dessert. But Abe plots alone, with a swagger in his stride. Suddenly, he can finish that book on Martin Heidegger, climax in bed and stop taking swigs of single malt whiskey. (Incidentally, Irrational Man is anti-product placement, not just in the use of a canteen bottle to hide a brand of whiskey, but when Jill drinks a soft drink, the label on the can faces away from the camera.)

But Irrational Man is weirdly zeitgeisty (that non-word again) because, as we know from the news, there are plenty of young people joining ISIL to kill in order to give their lives meaning. There is the same ennui followed by an epiphany and a desire to act. As any student would tell you, it was ever thus. The difference between Abe and so-called indoctrinated fanatics is that his act is local, singular and with no expectation of reward. Abe believes his act to be risk-free, because he doesn’t know the victim. He believes he is committing the perfect murder.

Allen is also interested in the way certain cultured groups metabolise murder – not in accepting the act itself, but in talking about it. It becomes a topic to have an opinion about – of theory. Allen has been frequently quoted as saying film making is a distraction for him, something to fill the time. For the characters in his movies, someone else’s murder is a distraction too, like sports or Dancing with the Stars.

Is Allen critical of these characters who speculate on other’s misfortune? No – he’s one of them, excited by trying to figure out the magic act, how it was done. Incidentally, magic is another recurring motif in Allen’s work, from his 1980 play, The Floating Lightbulb to Stardust MemoriesScoop and Magic in the Moonlight (2014).

Having abandoned his satirist’s impulse, how can one say Allen is relevant? He has in his last three films – Blue Jasmine (2013), Magic in the Moonlight and now Irrational Man – set his dramas on the coast, be it in San Francisco, the Côte D’Azur or on Rhode Island. Looking wistfully out to sea, he is contemplating the setting sun, finally letting mortality catch up with him. I for one am waiting for an Allen film set in a Florida retirement community. He might just rediscover his sense of humour.


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[Review] – ‘Irrational Man’
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Larry Oliver
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