Is it ever right to do wrong?
Could telling a lie instead of the truth be the most moral choice in certain situations, like, say, in the case of Germans harboring Jews in their basements when Nazi soldiers came to the door? What if morality is something we construct subjectively, not something we must blindly, objectively submit to? Then again, what if morality doesn’t really exist at all? How can we find existential meaning in an existence that seems, at times, so trivial?
These are the kinds of questions notoriously provocative philosophy professor Abe Lucas tosses out to tease and torment his impressionable college students. And make no mistake, Abe is both a teaser and a tormentor, a nihilistic, narcissistic, philandering drunk who’s lost his appetite for almost everything save single malt Scotches. That includes his chosen field of philosophy.
It’s all just “verbal masturbation,” he tells his students, a theoretical discipline that’s too far removed from the exigencies of war and poverty and genocide and loss to be much use in the real world.
Still, Prof. Lucas has a penchant for making even disengaged despair look chic. One of his peers, married chemistry professor Rita Richards, swoons for it. So does Jill Pollard, a student who falls for Abe despite repeated insistences to her doting boyfriend, Roy, that nothing untoward is happening.
And nothing untoward is happening, really. At least not at first.
That’s because Abe’s not interested in romance. Remember, he's not interested in anything. At a college party one night, he drunkenly puts a loaded revolver to his head and pulls the trigger in a game of Russian roulette, just to make a shocking point about the randomness of existence. But even that level of recklessness isn’t enough to warn off Jill. “I find your view of existence too bleak for me,” she tells him—obviously seduced by it anyway.
Slowly, Abe reciprocates, while halfheartedly attempting to steer their relationship in a more platonic direction. As for Rita, well, they're already way past platonic, as if Plato has anything to do with 21st-century sex.
Then something happens. Something that infuses Abe’s life with the meaning and purpose he’s been bereft of for so long. Something … murderous.
It starts with a random conversation Abe and Jill overhear in a restaurant. A distraught mother is pouring out her heart to friends about the heartless judge who's about to give her ex-husband custody of their children, even though the children despise him.
Abe and Jill can't shake off the woman’s sad story. Maybe the judge will die of cancer or have a heart attack, they joke. Or maybe Abe will rationalize that the world would be better off without such an awful person. And so it's door number two that creaks slowly open as Abe begins meticulously plotting the judge’s murder. And in doing so he himself "comes to life" in a way he hasn’t felt for years, convincing him that doing something wrong is actually right.
As for Jill? Well, she's not so sure.
[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Irrational Man is, as Woody Allen movies often are, a morality play. Once again, Allen deconstructs the consequences of a worldview he himself clings to. Namely, that there is no real meaning or purpose in an utterly random world.
But instead of acting as a sympathetic apologist for that point of view, Allen is intellectually honest about the consequences of such a perspective. If morality is all just a subjective, personal construct, as his protagonist strenuously argues, then good is also something we each define for ourselves. So from Abe's perspective, it would be a good thing to kill a judge whose corrupt decision in favor of a heartless husband (who happens to be the judge's friend) will devastate a wonderful wife and mother.
Abe's internal monologues demonstrate how effectively he's managed to convince himself that his violent plan is just. But as Jill slowly, horrifyingly realizes that Abe is a murderer, she's morally aghast. Abe asks her to "put everyday assumptions aside" as they pertain to morality, to see that his violent actions "gave my life meaning" and "a reason to live." He says he's an "original thinker" who "can't be judged by middle-class rules." Elsewhere, Abe's rationalizations include lines like, "I took direct action and eliminated a cancer," "I feel like an authentic human being" and "If it feels right, it often is."
That's not sound logic, of course, and Jill's having none of it. She tells Abe he can't justify his argument, no matter how hard he tries. "This is murder. It opens the door to more murder." Indeed, Abe's choices do become a slippery slope, as he eventually plots to murder Jill, too, when it becomes apparent she's ready to go to the authorities. (Jill is rightly motivated in part by the fact that the police have charged someone else, and she's horrified that Abe might be willing to let an innocent man take the fall for him.)
In another area, interestingly, Abe's and Jill's moral bearings are reversed. Jill is ready to consummate her relationship with him, never mind that she has a loving boyfriend. Abe, to his credit, resists that suggestion for much of the film. (Not all of it, though.) At one point when Jill confesses her love, Abe says, "I think you're in love with the romantic idea of being in love with your professor." In another scene, he tells her, "I have to be the responsible one and keep this from getting out of hand." She eventually (not soon enough, of course) comes to her senses and realizes that she was "better suited for Roy all along."
The story is based on Abe's assumption that God doesn't exist, and that the world is devoid of meaning and purpose apart from what we create ourselves. Abe lectures about several philosophers and their teachings, including Immanuel Kant (who strove to create a strictly philosophical rationale for morality), Jean-Paul Sartre (whom Abe quotes as having said, "Hell is other people) and Søren Kierkegaard (about whom Abe says, "He was in the end a Christian. How comforting that would be!"). Abe defines existentialism by saying that it's "not just What does it mean? but What does it mean to me?"
After Abe is "transformed" by murdering the judge, Rita asks if he's had a "religious epiphany." A voiceover by Jill characterizes Abe as a suffering "lost soul."
Abe has a reputation as a womanizer, something Rita is aware of when he arrives at their college for his first semester of teaching. She flirts and tells him she knows "who's f---ing who." Rita's pursuit of Abe (she's sure her marriage is falling apart) eventually lands the pair in bed … where Abe's unable to fully consummate their lust due to impotence. (We see bare shoulders and hear their interaction.) In a second attempt, Cialis is employed, but it doesn't change the outcome. (We hear about it.) In a separate conversation with Jill, Abe confesses that he can no longer find distraction from his internal angst "in the easy, reliable painkiller of orgasm."
Once Abe murders the judge, however, all that changes. He and Rita have enthusiastic sex. (We see no obvious nudity, but hear explicit movements and sounds.) Abe and Jill end up in bed again, too (with bare shoulders again showing).
Jill, Rita and other women wear formfitting, skin-revealing outfits. Abe's shown shirtless. He talks about catching his wife cheating on him with his best friend.
As mentioned, Abe puts a revolver loaded with one bullet into his mouth and pulls the trigger repeatedly. After researching the best way to murder someone, he uses cyanide to off the judge. And when he decides he's going to need to murder Jill, too, he rigs an elevator door to open, but stops the car at the bottom, creating a long drop; he intends to toss Jill down the shaft. But in the classic Proverbs 26:27 manner, he ultimately falls into his own trap.
It's mentioned that Abe's mother committed suicide when he was 12, and that a good friend was horrifically killed in Afghanistan.
Crude or Profane Language
Five f-words, close to 10 s-words. God's name is misused more than 20 times (once paired with "d--n"). Jesus' name is abused five or six times. "D--n" and "h---" are uttered two or three times each.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Our first glimpse at Abe is of him swigging from a flask as he drives his (what else?) ancient Volvo to his newest teaching gig. Before murdering the judge, Abe drinks frequently from the flask, often in places where it's totally inappropriate to do so on campus. He looks and sounds semi-inebriated most of the time. (After his "epiphany," he cleans up his act and doesn't seem quite as dependent on alcohol to numb him.) Rita shows up at his house with a bottle of Scotch.
Other characters also drink regularly. A scene takes place in a bar. Faculty members have vodka martinis at a fall kick-off cocktail party. Students, right along with their elders, consume beer, wine and hard liquor. Three young women at a college party pass around what appears to be a small glass pipe. Jill tells someone that Abe's experimented with almost all the drugs out there; mescaline is called out in particular.
Other Negative Elements
Before murdering the judge, Abe stalks him. Abe says, "Everything about killing Judge Spangler turned me on. … The risk made me feel alive." As his plot unfolds, he tries ever harder to rationalize his choice ("The more I found out about him, the more I was convinced the world would be a better place without him").
Trying to confirm her suspicions about Abe, Jill sneaks into his house in search of evidence.
For a Jewish atheist, Woody Allen sure knows how to make a morally minded, even Christian-minded movie.
Irrational Man is undergirded by a very deliberate moral worldview, one that, oddly, squares with the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of truth that Allen himself personally eschews and yet obviously still has a kind of wistful fondness for. As a result, Mr. Allen's cinematic efforts aren't so much irrational as they are incongruous as he deftly uncovers the folly of postmodernism's optimism about every person crafting his or her own subjective moral code.
Abe tries hard to do exactly that. But despite his high-minded philosophical rationalizations, his increasingly disturbed young lover crudely calls it what it is: "bulls---."
Of course it's exactly those sorts of exclamations that merit a cautionary warning for anyone who may feel an irrational attraction to a morally minded movie that seems immorally at odds with a moral lifestyle by immersing us in extra-marital affairs, excessive drinking and, oh, yeah, murder.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Joaquin Phoenix as Prof. Abe Lucas; Emma Stone as Jill Pollard; Jamie Blackley as Roy; Parker Posey as Rita Richards
Woody Allen ( Magic in the Moonlight, Blue Jasmine, To Rome With Love, Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Scoop, Match Point, Melinda and Melinda, Anything Else, Hollywood Ending, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion)
July 17, 2015
January 12, 2016