Review: Irrational Man

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Is existential despair the reason for Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), the title character of Woody Allen's Irrational Man's impotence, or is impotence the cause for his despair? Remember Allen's famous standup quip in Annie Hall:

I was thrown out of N.Y.U my freshman year for cheating on a metaphysics exam, you know. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.

In Irrational Man Allen goes a little further and the précis of modern philosophy he offers through the voice of the flask guzzling philosophy professor that Phoenix portrays is a little like one of those audio guides to masterpieces at the Louvre. In discussing Kant Abe says, "in a totally moral world there is no room for lying," about Kierkegaard, "anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." Though he argues that "much of philosophy is verbal masturbation," and that philosophy and life occupy two separate worlds, he seems to confuse these realms in the conduct of his own life. Even a dose of Cialis and the loving ministrations of the lubricious and unhappy wife of a colleague (Parker Posey) fail to solve either his physical or existential crisis. At one point he declaims, "I couldn't remember the reason for living and when I did it wasn't convincing." Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Perhaps not. What precedes is not necessarily the cause. But Abe is spared by the notion of the perfect crime, the murder of a disreputable judge. And the murder works better than any drug to restore his zest for life and in particular his ability to fuck. He says, "I feel I've accomplished something wonderful and that my life has meaning." The philosophical loophole, of course, lies in the fact that the perfect crime has little to do with making the world a better place, and a lot into shoring up Abe's waning life force. Emma Stone playing, Jill, the student who is smitten with Abe, begins to get an idea of what is happening when she discovers a copy of Crime and Punishment and realizes soon after (when an innocent man is charged with the crime) that the existential act "opens the door to murder." The philosophy, however pithy, is inexorable and drives the movie to its perhaps overly neatly packaged conclusion. One thing seems to be certain, from the director's point of view, murder is more effective than Cialis. The poster shot which shows a silhouette of Gabe standing on a rock over looking water and bathed in a wedge of blinding sunlight brilliantly captures the helplessness and solitude of the human creature.

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}