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Woody Allen at 80


Irrational Man Acting Out (We Died Laughing)

Who but Woody Allen could write and direct a movie with a title like Irrational Man and go straight to the heart of the subject? That's right, Irrational Man is about so-called "Continental philosophy," the ideas of Jean-Paul Satre, Martin Heidegger, and Soren Kierkegaard. For them, men don't occasionally or frequently act irrationally; man is by nature irrational—irrational man.

Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is driving to his new post at Braylin, a New England liberal arts college, and thinking about life's futility, philosophy's fatuity, and how he doesn't want to be here or anywhere else. And as he drives he is taking swigs of scotch from his hip flask.

At the picturesque college somewhere in Rhode Island, he teaches his eager undergraduates the ideas of Existentialism and Phenomenology, "bringing them to life"—sort of--through his own intellectual exhaustion, angst, and spiritual flaccidness. What a romantic figure, huh! And so he is, to his undergraduate student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), a classic Woody Allen pretty, pale, impassioned, seriously intense sweetie. And he also is romantic, in a different way, to sexy faculty wife and played-out chemistry professor Rita (Parker Posey, who made her cinema reputation as the "Queen of the Indie").

Too demoralized to respond to Rita's frank propositions, too unmanned to get it up when she gets him in the sack, Lucas goes along, um, philosophically. But to his student Jill's molten core of womanly determination to get this most "romantic," "exciting," "fascinating," "hurt," and "tragic" new man, Lucas opposes considerable maturity and even (a sort of) reasonableness. After all, Jill already has a wonderful guy, fellow student Roy (Jamie Blackley), who is getting worn down by listening to these descriptions of Lucas who, for heaven's sake, is "just a friend."

At a party to which Jill drags Lucas, parting him from his blocked book-in-progress on Heidegger and the Nazis (which will "not make one scintilla of difference" to the world), Lucas seems to reach the climax of his philosophical convictions. The "kids"—Jill and her undergraduate peers—have taken out dad's revolver and, with a sense of authority, one young man is explaining to Jill what "Russian roulette" means. They wave the gun, remove all but one bullet, talking excitedly. Lucas reaches out, silently, and with his hand makes the "here, give it to me," gesture. He takes it, spins the cylinder with its single bullet, puts it to his forehead, and pulls the trigger. Jill screams; the kids go wild. He spins, does it a second time. He is really that depressed, spiritually deracinated, and, well, drunk and given to "romantic" gestures.

Jill drags him out of the party—more enchanted, more in love, more determined than ever to reignite his zest for life—in bed. Still Lucas resists, but the non-romance goes on with trademarked Woody Allen charm: the obligatory biking scene, a talk at the seaside, and an evening at an amusement park. In one nice scene, in the funhouse, Lucas and Jill pose before the distorting mirror: two squat, belly bloated, dwarf-headed figures. And then they kiss, Jill's slender bare legs like plastic Hobbit stumps as she leans to kiss her man at last. We snap back to reality and the real kiss—and again Lucas backs off, sober and mature, but, of course, lost. Some symbolism there, don't you think?

The moment postulated by Existentialists, when man--whose reason by nature vouchsafes no certainty, no guide to action--sweeps aside mere thought and grabs reality with both hands comes for Lucas while he is sitting in a diner with Jill. They overhear, in the next booth, a discussion of a custody case in which a corrupt judge is taking a woman's children and giving them to their father ("who keeps them sitting in the garage all day"). It seems that the father is well connected and well financed; the mother's lawyer can do nothing in the face of the judge's steadfast corruption. The mother is experiencing Existential despair. Her sympathizers can only wax indignant.

We watch Lucas's face as he listens to this disturbing story and the pity of the mother's plight. Nothing can be done by argument, reason; man's irrationality and the evil that plagues life leave the rational people, the good guys, helpless.

Nothing will help but to ACT. To commit. To feel the right, the good, in your heart, or gut, and simply...act. It is the Existential moment at which Lucas chooses to make his life meaningful; it is the moment at which reason and thought cease to call the shots in Existentialism because man's choice, his will, creates its own reality.

That reality, it dawns upon Lucas, is that if the judge, Augustus Spengler, dies then evil will lose. The weight of the world's ageless pain will be lifted, for a moment, from one woman and her children. And Lucas can accomplish it, do something meaningful; he need only commit himself to act. He can stop speculating and expostulating and act. (Some ink has been spilled relating this scene to what Woody Allen may have experienced in court during the publicly emblazoned legal brawl involving his wife and step daughter.)

It is not a spoiler to tell you that about one-third of the way through the movie Lucas does murder the judge. His "perfect crime," once committed, exhilarates him. The whole weight of senseless philosophy, the impotent idea game, lifts from his spirit. He can live again; he can get it up in bed with Jill; he can dig into a robust breakfast; he wants to live and love. Ah, life! The philosophical significance of taking another human life, and even the resulting spiritual awakening, are a birthplace of Existentialism, of course. Lucas says, "Dostoyevsky, he had it right!" And he annotates his proposed crime in his copy of Crime and Punishment. It is the same kind of literary romp that Woody Allen offers in Midnight in Paris with Gertrude Stein et. al.; only the bibliographic references have changed. I, for one, am enough of a bookworm to enjoy it all.

Well, there is no perfect crime, you know, but to discuss that would be a spoiler. Let us say that Jill's ruling impulse to follow her "heart" becomes as urgent a threat to Lucas as it once was a temptation. What to do? Another existential commitment? The resolution, which I will not reveal, makes Irrational Man quite a neat—and to me, satisfying—murder mystery.

Of course, whether Woody Allen is evoking perfect romance in Paris or Barcelona or San Francisco—or turning, as in Irrational Man, to Crime and Punishment lite—we expect it to be funny. Whether we are in the achingly nostalgic world of Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's Paris--or the alarming rush of Lucas's awakening to his choices--we expect the wit and we get it.

And yet, it is problematic to view Irrational Man as a witty, even devastating satire on the ideas of contemporary philosophy and the college professors who actually take them seriously. Problematic because the ideas of contemporary or "post-modernist" philosophy, and the gravity of the professors who teach them, are in actuality funny. When Lucas stands at the front of a class of undergraduates, who look up at him expectantly, awaiting initiation into the world of the intellect, and not only the professor's words but his very posture, expression, and intonation speak disgust with philosophy, despair at elusive truth, and self-deprecation it is contemporary philosophy parodying itself. It is funny. "As funny," as my mother used to say "as a crutch."

And so, is Irrational Man not a satire but a serious look at the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary philosophy and a glimpse at its deadly consequences—cause and effect played out with the revelatory time-compression of good drama? Is the fact that that philosophy's ideas are laughable just part of the grim story?

In the case of Woody Allen, the question makes no sense. You knew that, didn't you? Irrational Man, written and directed by Allen in his 80th year, goes right back to Allen's roots. He first came to attention as not only a comic but a writer with serious literary talent through his comic pieces in the New Yorker. They always sought their humor in serious ideas and always laughed at those ideas. And often the ideas were those of academic philosophy.

Who could write (parodying the linguistic analytical movement) that his philosophy dissertation explored the question "Are we naked under our clothes?" and not be laughing out loud at the meaningless moaning about meaning of Abe Lucas? But, as Allen discovered way back in the 1960's, writing for the New Yorker, those ideas are only truly, deeply funny—funny in the way we can't forget--as long as part of us takes them seriously. And nothing works so well, to that end, as raising the most fundamental questions that have intrigued men at least since Ancient Greece—and watching modern philosophy's slap-stick attempt to address them.

Irrational Man, by the way, is also the title of a book published in 1958 by William Barrett, a professor of philosophy at New York University while Woody Allen was a student, there. The subtitle of the book is "A Study of Existentialist Philosophy," and Barrett is credited with introducing that philosophy into the United States. (In this sense, Allen's references to Continental philosophy refer more to the 1940's and 1950's than the present; European philosophy since Existentialism has become even wackier, with "Deconstructionism," "Structuralism," and "French feminism" to name only a few trends.)

I had hoped to resist quoting early Woody Allen humor--certainly at length—but... In this exchange from Play It Again, Sam (1972) we hear the same antic muse as in Irrational Man:

Allen: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollack, isn't it?

Woman: Yes, it is.

Allen: What does it say to you?

Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless, bleak straitjacket in a black, absurd cosmos.

Allen: What are you doing Saturday night?

Woman: Committing suicide.

Allen: What about Friday night?

Actually, I had not intended to review Irrational Man, but I happened to see the "Rotten Tomatoes" rating and critique of the movie. The 114 critics whose take on the movie is represented in the rating gave it on average two stars out of five (38 percent). And their "consensus" was "Irrational Man may prove rewarding for the most ardent Joaquin Phoenix fans or Woody Allen apologists, but all others most likely need not apply."

I do not beg to differ; I insist. Irrational Man reveals our era's most astute satirist of the serious pretensions of intellectual nonsense at his best—and it has been a long era to defend that title. The movie maker who decades ago made us chuckle at the absurdity of Marxist guerrillas in Central American jungles today is making us laugh at philosophy professors who assure intent undergraduates that "we know we know nothing"—and that the entire politically correct leftist worldview must be treated as sacred truth.

And yet, he manages always to keep before us the ever-new magic of romance, a sense of fascination with life even at its most disconcerting, and the simple pleasure of the story.

Nothing says more about the seriousness with which the comic genius approaches life than the reliable theatrical potency of Irrational Man that Woody Allen has given us in his eightieth year.

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