Thursday, 3 September 2015

Movie Review: Irrational Man (2015)

Given the recent news of two other celebrities whom have become embroiled in sex scandals, talking about Woody Allen is going to prove… problematic, to say the least. What makes this even more awkward is the fact that, unlike the events surrounding Harris and Cosby of late, it seems that people have forgiven(?) Allen for his actions; or, to be more accurate, developed a capacity to ignore them. Now, I’m a firm believer that a disconnection between the artist and his art is possible and, at times, necessary: Grave Of The Fireflies is an immensely powerful film, but it’s hurt when it’s brought into context of Isao’s intent for the film. I am not condoning Allen’s behaviour by any means; I’m just saying that how he is as a person shouldn’t immediately paint all opinions concerning his art, some of which is still beloved to this day. Hell, if that were the case then no-one would ever listen to another Phil Spector-produced song again. Okay, now that all of that is out of the way, let’s actually get into the film itself so that I can practice what I preach for once about separation of art and artist: This is Irrational Man.

The plot: Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) has been appointed the new philosophy professor at Braylin, but they seem to have hired him in the midst of existential depression. He eventually connects with Jill (Emma Stone), one of his students, but he still can’t find a solid reason to keep going. However, by chance, he thinks he has found one: Murder of a unruly judge. He plans to pull off the ‘perfect murder’, but will he be able to accomplish it without becoming a prime suspect himself?

Philosophy is one of those areas of discussion that exist for its own sake: When you talk about philosophical ideas in conversation, it’s never with a definitive “Here’s the right answer” intent to it. Or, at least, it isn’t if you have any sense. Now, this film’s brand of philosophy is largely moralistic, inspired by Dostoyevsky classic Crime And Punishment. Since that book currently occupies a space on my long, long, long list of media that everyone keeps telling me to check out, direct comparisons will be limited. After all, Rodion was only trying to justify his monetary ambitions by claiming the higher ground; Abe, on the other hand, may actually have reason to do so. Getting back to discussions on the subject, the very best ones are those that solely exist to get a better idea about the inner workings of the people who engage in it; less what food is served at dinner and more how the table guests consume it. With that in mind, this is a genuinely fascinating look into the ideas surrounding morality, how our own stances crystalize into action and essentially where the line between rational and irrational thinking is. Hell, on that last point, I’d argue that this film serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when you think too rationally about the world. I specified philosophical ‘discussions’ because the ideas that are usually present in such talks aren’t the kind that can easily be put into practice. It takes the theoretical aspect of philosophy and turns it on its head: Sure, the ideals extolled by Plato and even Dostoyevsky are interesting and sound feasible enough, but what happens when you put those same ideals to the test in the real world? All of a sudden, what is rational isn’t the easiest question to answer.

Abe’s decision to kill a man whom he considers to be morally wrong comes from a certain logical place, and what makes that even weirder is the idea that, in terms of pure ethos, no one can really argue with him on those grounds. It’s only out of the feeling that murder is wrong regardless that it is argued that what he’s doing is wrong. To make things trickier on this standpoint, there’s also the effect that such a decision has on Abe himself. Prior to the encounter that gives him the idea, we see him in the depths of existential depression, to the point of playing Russian roulette at a college party. Once he has his revelation, he finds himself reinvigorated and at ease again; finding a new lease on life through the end of someone else’s adds a nice element of vigilantism to his actions, not to mention questioning the 'selflessness' of his motives.

In keeping with the film’s attitude of how some ideas work better in theory than in reality, Abe’s supposed “perfect murder” isn’t exactly the most airtight scheme that I’ve come across. The mystery itself only really works in terms of the film’s overall subtext involving rational/irrational thought processes, considering the numerous gaps in logic and placements of witnesses at key moments of the scheme should have had him caught in no time flat. The film tries to cover for this by showing how rampantly rumours and gossip can spread around the campus, as well as how Abe wasn’t necessarily the only one who wanted the judge dead; just that he was the only one who had the wherewithal to carry it out. Admirable attempt by Woody to tape up the seams, and it’s a decent attempt at that, but there’s still a lot of obvious behaviour at work here that made me scratch my head. There’s also the ending, which I won’t spoil here, which may fit in terms of character consistency but also clashes in terms of tonal consistency.


All in all, I do love me a film that gets me thinking and this certainly delivers in that department. This is bolstered by Woody’s usual pedigree for casting, as Phoenix manages both his early lull and later joyousness with equal panache while still keeping it all grounded and Emma Stone just seems to be one of those actors who have great on-screen chemistry with everyone. It may not be the cleverest mystery, but it more than makes up for that with the one-two punch of the film’s moral musings and handling of the romances. It ranks higher than The Book Of Life, as the writing here gave me something more to chew on, but as an overall film, it falls short of Top Five.

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