Irrational, man? Or a Kantian?

Is Woody Allen an Irrational Man? Maybe not. Woody Allen at the Cannes screening of Irrational Man (2015) with cast members Emma Stone and Parker Posey. Benoit Tessier/Reuters

With Irrational Man (2015), there is no doubt about it, Woody Allen has done it again.

Just what “it” is, however, is less immediately clear.

I confess to taking an almost irrational enjoyment in the film, whose 90 minutes (more or less) neatly occupied the red-eye home from Sydney on our national carrier.

If my neighbours on the half-empty flight hadn’t been asleep, or similarly absorbed in their instantiations of what Leonard Cohen called “that hopeless little screen”, my frequent laughter (I am sure) would have been downright annoying.

Perhaps it was the cheap thrill of hearing bad, terribly bad philosophical soundbites being recited in a Hollywood feature. (Irrational Man’s script is lined with bumper stickers ripped from Kant, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Hannah Arendt.)

Perhaps it was the flattering absurdity of the protagonist in any feature film being a philosophy Professor, complete with “live” sequences of him at his work bench, aka the lecture hall.

Perhaps, I have to be honest, it was the inevitable Allenian feature of the beautiful young lead Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) falling guilelessly in love with such a figure that got me – alongside the similarly flattering idea that the arrival of a new Philosophy Prof in Faculty could set the entire college aflame (“he’s kind of wasted…”, “that’s so hot”, etc.)

So maybe I am just getting older (sic.). And it was just this middle-aged academic’s fatigue after two days at a conference that was having its way with me.

What’s it all about, then, this Irrational Man of Woody Allen?

An old, snide gag has it that the German philosopher Schelling “conducted his education in public”, in the form otherwise known as his books. However that may be (Schelling is not alone), everyone knows that Woody Allen has been conducting his psychoanalysis in public for the last half century or so. The product is his films.

Recently, the fantasies have turned around the fetching motif of an ageing male hero who exerts an irresistible force of attraction on one or several beautiful women in their twenties, played by a who’s who of Hollywood’s leading starlets. Sometimes, generously, the hero has been played by Allen himself.

In this variation on the theme, our hero Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is an ageing philandering Philosophy professor. Abe has hit rock bottom, taking a job at the middling American college where we lay our scene. His reputation with the ladies, and for controversy, precedes him. He brings his drinking problem with him all by himself.

Abe is suffering from writer’s block, as he struggles to complete, “just what the world needs. Another book on Heidegger and fascism.”

His lectures seem to involve some kind of jaded introduction to modern philosophy, with all the “hits” mentioned above. Significantly, he starts with Kant’s ethics, and the inevitable ‘should you lie to the Nazis if you had the Franks in the attic?’ query which nearly every teacher since 1947 has used.

(Guilty as charged, your honour.)

Kant says you shouldn’t ever lie, and he keeps on cropping up throughout the flick, as do references to the Nazi disaster. Abe pulls Kant down in front of his class, citing the vast gap between abstract thought and actual life that he is himself suffering acutely from.

Of course, Abe is attracted to the Continental tradition. “The continental tradition doesn’t just ask what things mean,” he explains ‘fabulously’ to a student who queries the choice. “It explains what they mean for me.”

In fact, nothing much seems to mean anything at all to this “honest Abe” for much of the film – whence comes the odd dynamic of the plot.

His conversations with Jill in the first half of the film roll out a nearly-unbearable sequence of quasi-existentialist, pseudo-romantic clichés: “the senselessness of existence”, “nothing has any value”, “crisis” and so on.

Things change when Abe and Jill overhear a woman complaining of the cruel injustice of a Judge (urgent page for Mr Soren Kierkegaard) set to rule over her custody dispute with her husband. As things stand, this Judge – who enjoys the fantastically-suggestive name Thomas Augustus Spengler – looks set to rob this innocent of her kids, ruining her life.

At that moment, something clicks for Abe. Going from spouting existentialist clichés to being one, he resolves all at once to actually do something. Without much caring to get both sides of the story, Abe decides to rid the world of Judge Spengler, this human vermin, once and for all.

Everything now changes in Abe’s “being-in-the-world”. His year-long impotence has a happy ending (sic.). He begins that inevitable Allenian affair with Jill/Stone, who continues to obligingly throw herself at him at every chance, finally cornering him in front of a distorted mirror.

Abe’s whiny angst now gives way to energetic planning. He has a purpose, something for-the-sake-of-which (excuse me) life takes on a sense or a direction.

He stalks Spengler, discovering his utterly mundane routine: where and when he jogs, where he gets his orange juice, and the park bench where he reads the newspaper.

Stealing into the chemistry lab, Abe acquires some cyanide. That very day, he successfully accomplishes this “perfect”, perfectly senseless, crime for which no one could ever rationally suspect him.

A telltale copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) will later be found by Jill on his desk as her suspicions grow. Hannah Arendt’s controversial phrase about the leading Nazi organiser of the Shoah, Adolf Eichmann, embodying “the banality of evil” is scrawled in the margins.

This senseless murder is Abe’s existential act. Staring out at the sea as the sun sets, Abe savours an exhilaration of having done something, precipitated an Event, and dared to disturb the universe.

But enough plot.

Things have to end badly, and they do. The sovereign chance Abe has written papers on in his former incarnation returns to deliver his fall at the film’s second, decisive moment.

Jill, meanwhile, will come to realise that she should have stuck with her honest but dull boyfriend “Roy” all along, “learning a lesson that you can’t get from any textbook”.

So what is this lesson? Does the film say anything at all, whether once or twice?

Maybe it doesn’t need to. Comedies don’t need to signify anything, someone might say. Their function is to make us laugh, usually by pitting a limited number of stereotyped characters (the angst-ridden Professor, the idealistic but naïve college beauty…) against fate and each other, so we can laugh at the distance between their “goals” and their “ends”.

The whole story has to end with the good guys surviving, marrying, or overcoming their illusions—as it does here, in its way. The comedies in the Attic festivals came last, rebinding in laughter the audience’s sense of things earlier ripped apart in the tragic dramas, alongside the heroes and heroines.

I am going to put myself on the line, and suggest that Woody Allen in this film does actually want to say something. It’s not what you’d call a strong statement, and irony threatens to undermine all.

But it seems to me that the film is actually a comedic grotesque of existentialism: that entire philosophical tradition of the last mid-century we know that Allen has long wrestled with.

It might even be Allen’s own riposte to the whole “Heidegger and fascism” thing, once again on the world’s radar, and the kind of thinking which celebrates making _some _decision, independent of any or all content, as “the one thing needful”, as if there were not other things, and other people/s, to consider.

So the people who want to draw “life lessons” from Allen’s comedy should look to its end, rather than the beginning and the middle.

Jill doesn’t know why, or how to say why. But when she discovers her idol’s quasi-Dostoevskian act she instantly tells him their affair is over. And “of course” she is thinking of turning him in, even though she has long been infatuated with Abe.

You just don’t kill people, Jill protests. And if your sense of existential potency—or even of national or larger purpose—is consistent with violating, or operates with complete disregard for all moral principles beginning with the golden rule, then there really are issues—all “French post-war rationalisations” notwithstanding, in Jill’s formulation.

Perhaps this is pushing it, but the desire to vindicate Jill’s sense of an inviolable normative limit – underlying all our attempts to gain “existential purpose” – could just explain why Allen has Abe’s philosophy classes begin with Kant on the categorical imperative (thou shalt not …) before he dives into Kierkegaard, Sartre et al on radical decision.

Kant shows up again in the chem lab, as a student comes upon Abe getting his cyanide after hours, in order to deliver Spengler’s demise. In a typical instance of Allen’s improbably direct scripting, she tells him straight-up that she needs help with her assignment on Kant. The reason is that she is ‘confused about his moral principles’.

As it happens, so is Abe.

Finally, there is the naming of Abe Lucas’ unknowing victim after Oswald Spengler: a figure whose Decline of the West (1923) was a key document informing the cultural malaise that bred the Nazis’ “revolution of nihilism”, and their collective celebration of the absolute decision of a dictatorial Fuhrer, ready to forge an irrational path beyond good and evil, amidst the colossal wreck.

Isn’t this a little too much, an academic’s over-interpretation, excited by the fact that someone finally has made a film about the fraternity?

Sure. Or maybe.

I confess that otherwise I at least wasn’t able to make much of Irrational Man, except its making for a pleasant flight home before the inevitable bill shock at airport parking…

Maybe I should end by saying that, otherwise, the film “just took place”?

Why not.