Woody Allen Explores A Familiar Motif in Irrational Man

While it’s difficult for many to stomach the concept of Woody Allen in the wake of the accusation that wouldn’t go away, those who are able to separate the man from the art (which is harder to do with people like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly), continue to find value in his later works–though they’re admittedly few and far between. With Allen’s forty-eighth “written and directed by” film, Irrational Man, we find that there are some topics the auteur can never let go of.

Another May-December romance
Another May-December romance

Apart from the usual bristling element–a younger woman being attracted to an older man–that punctuates Allen’s films, there is also the proposition of murder and what constitutes making it moral to commit such a crime. Just as in Cassandra’s Dream (Allen’s panned and underrated 2007 film starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell), the subject of ethics with regard to taking a life plays heavily into the lead character’s, philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), moral quandary.

Promotional poster for Irrational Man
Promotional poster for Irrational Man

While the trailer doesn’t let on why “there was something lighter about Abe,” the reason for his sudden about-face in mood stems from the decision to kill a man that’s making a stranger whose conversation he overhears suffer. Whether this is a tactic to get audiences more intrigued in the plot or simply a means to mask the cliche of Allen’s constant exploration of murder (let’s not forget Match Point either) is arbitrary. Whatever the case, the film bifurcates from a banal story about a depressed philosophy teacher to an unexpected tale of committing the perfect crime.

Allen’s own fascination with philosophy (in this film, Kant’s stance on lying is paid particular attention to) has always played with what scenario could possibly allow for murder’s moral correctness. In 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, for instance, Judah (Martin Landau), the “protagonist,” decides to have his mistress killed after she threatens to tell his wife about their affair.

With a fellow teacher, Rita RIchards (Parker Posey)
With a fellow teacher, Rita RIchards (Parker Posey)

The one varying degree in Irrational Man‘s probing into the nature of murder is that Abe, unlike previous Allen prototypes for his character, feels a sense of levity and joy over taking another human life, whereas others who have done so in Allen films have been plagued by guilt and shame that ultimately consumes them. However, as one of Abe’s love interests/philosophy students, Jill (Emma Stone), remarks, “Murder just opens the door to more murder,” presaging the floodgate that has been opened by this “unique experience.”

Moral disagreements abound in Irrational Man
Moral disagreements abound in Irrational Man

The conclusion, of course, is one of a tragic nature, as Allen can only be honest in his feelings of pessimism toward life and its essential meaninglessness in spite of what we try to make of it while we’re here. In the end, as Jill notes, sometimes there are things “that can’t be learned from textbooks”–in this case how to grapple with the person you’re in love with being a Patrick Bateman type wielding the excuse of high moral grounds to justify his actions.