I can't remember which documentary it was in which Woody Allen stated that he didn't think of himself as "an intellectual" a statement that's patently specious especially if one listens closely to most any of the dialogue in Annie Hall, but that's Woody Allen. The blurb on his new film Irrational Man reads "At the small-town college campus Braylin, philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself in an existential crisis, but he discovers a new purpose in life when he enters into a relationship with Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), one of his students." Well, that's only partially true and clearly doesn't want to spoil what it's really about which is both Allenesque and Hitchockian. But what's so revealing to me is that the title of the film is also the title of one of the most popular existential texts of the 60s, William Barrett's Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. The book blurb states: "Widely recognized as the finest definition of existentialist Philosophy, the book introduced existentialism to America in 1958. Barrett discusses the views of 19th and 20th century existentialists Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre and interprets the impact of their thinking on literature, art, and philosophy." And for a lot of us in the 60s, it was. Some of the key chapters deal with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre the last three of which are alluded to by Lucas in his lectures. Clearly, Allen is familiar with Barrett's text since there's little room for serendipity here, but what's clearly missing from the film is any overt allusion to Camus and, specifically, The Stranger since Lucas, at least at the beginning, is a stranger and at the end pretty much "leaps into death."
The film begins as so many May-September-student-falls-in-love-with-professor stories often do and one's immediate response might be: "Oh, not another one." But that's not the case. Lucas arrives at the Braylin campus, accompanied to the mid-60s music of Ramsey Lewis' "The In-Crowd" (which with "Wade in the Water" become a kind of leitmotif throughout the film), and shortly one discovers Lucas is both a presumed alcoholic (since regardless of where he is he's constantly removing his flask and drinking) and a philosophy professor who, by his very strangerly-ness, prompts campus-wide speculation about his "genius." One can overlook that it's odd a university would invite a prof to teach a "summer course" rather than something during the school year, but we can go with it. Lucas gives the appearance of being the "anti-philosopher" even alluding to the fact that philosophy is all "verbal masturbation" including his latest writing on Heidegger and fascism on which he has writer's block; however, that doesn't stop him from lecturing on Kant and Kierkegaard, Husserl and Sartre though Nietzsche seems not to be in attendance. No matter, all of Lucas's existential angst seems to appeal to his student Jill who is involved with her rather conventional boyfriend Roy, but since Roy isn't a "bad boy" in any manner of speaking she eventually dumps him for Lucas. That set-up is somewhat predictable from the outset; however, the turning point comes when Jill and Lucas are at a diner and they overhear the tragic story of a divorced mother who is in a custody battle with her ex-husband and the presiding Judge Spengler (whether that's an allusion to Nazi historian Oswald Spengler is up for grabs) favors the father for a number of different reasons including, but not limited to, cronyism. It's at that point that Lucas has an existential epiphany and sets out to murder Spengler.
When he makes that existential decision, he suddenly becomes a new man. He's no longer sad, he's filled with joy, he returns to writing poetry, becomes sexually liberated, doesn't need Cialis, falls in love with Jill (even though he's also been bonking, Rita, a chem prof), wins, by chance, a flashlight for Jill at a local carnival and much of this change is (as is most of the film) accompanied by the music of Ramsey Lewis. His scheme to kill the judge involves stalking the latter, discovering his daily routine and finally poisoning him with cyanide (which he obtains by stealing Rita's key to the chem lab) by switching cups of orange juice while the judge reads his daily paper on a park bench. The judge's death is initially considered a heart attack and Lucas feels existentially liberated in a way that Meursault (in English, "leaps into death") must have felt in The Stranger when he shot the Algerian: "And so with that crisp whip-crack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I'd shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of the beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud fateful rap on the door of my undoing."
It's not a coincidence that after the murder, Lucas begins lecturing on Sartre and Sartre's notion of living an "authentic life" since for Sartre, if not for Lucas, living authentically is connected with creativity. Lucas now believes he's an aesthetic human since the impetus for his actions presumably came from himself and not from outside and that he created the "perfect crime." When the authorities discover that Spengler was "murdered" and did not die of a heart attack, speculations about Lucas's criminality begin. At a dinner with Jill's parents, the four of them start to "deconstruct" the possibility of it being a murder and, of course, Jill nails it. Her suspicions seem confirmed when she accidentally meets Rita in a bar the latter explains her "theory" about how Lucas could have done it even though she and Lucas laughed at the possibility. So, while Lucas ponders the "aesthetics of the perfect crime," Jill uncovers more and more clues leading to her confronting and accusing Lucas about the crime which he doesn't deny. Unless Lucas turns himself in, Jill's intent on going to the police and turning him in since another person has been unjustly charged with the murder and that, as Kant might say, would not be in keeping with moral law which is self-defeating and contrary to reason. Caught between a Kant and a hard place, Lucas implores Jill to give him a few days and he'll turn himself in.
In the meantime, Rita is making plans to leave her husband and flee with Lucas to the sandy beaches of Spain while Jill returns to her former boyfriend, Roy, and Lucas plans to murder Jill. His plan is contingent on the fact that in college he worked on elevators ("How convenient," as the Church Lady might say) and rigs the elevator in the building where Jill takes her piano lessons so that when the doors open he can push her down the shaft. When Jill sees him standing by the elevator she's surprised. He manufactures a reason for being there and when the elevator doors open he tries to push her down. In the struggle, the flashlight he won for her falls to the floor he accidentally slips on it and falls to his death. At least in terms of existentialism, the ending is somewhat ambivalent. There's a conflict between choice and chance. For Sartre, human existence is the result of chance or accident. Predating Sartre, Kierkegaard proposed that each individual is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it authentically. Allen has come to a point in his work (if not his life) that he has faith in Kierkegaard, but believes in Sartre. There is the conundrum of believing one is in control of one's life, in living authentically, but, in the end, like Lucas, we're all susceptible to the whims of accident and chance.