Irrational Man: Woody Allen’s Dark Themes, Philosophical Concerns

irrational_man_2_stone_phoenixWorld premiering at the 2015 Cannes Film Fest, Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s 45th feature, will be released by Sony Classics in July.

Throughout his career Woody Allen has shown fascination with philosophy. He’s lampooned it in comic essays like “My Philosophy,” plays like “Death Knocks,” and “God,” and movies like Love and Death, and explored philosophical issues more seriously in films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Pont. “Since I was very young for whatever reason I’ve been drawn to what people always call the ‘big questions,’” he says. “In my work they’ve become subjects I kid around with if it’s a comedy or deal with on a more confrontational way if it’s a drama.”

Allen’s early interest in philosophy took shape when he watched Ingmar Bergman’s films as a teenager. “They had a great grip on me,” he says. “At that time I had not read Nietzsche or Kierkegaard, philosophers that Bergman relied quite heavily on, but that material rang a very profound bell with me. I was riveted by his movies and the questions they asked and the problems that they dealt with. And subsequently over the years, I read a certain amount of philosophy and was able to understand more clearly who influenced him and what ideas he was dramatizing. And I grew to enjoy reading the philosophers, to compare them and how they challenge and disprove one another about their contrasting approaches to unanswerable questions.”

irrational_man_1_stone_phoenixAllen’s absorption with philosophy has been so defining to his body of work that it has inspired several serious books about the philosophy found in his films. “I don’t think that anything I’ve written or dramatized has any originality philosophically—I’m simply a product of the philosophers I’ve read. I think the most you could say is that there are coherent philosophical themes that run through all or most of my pictures over the years. But they are obsessions of mine that center around issues many men have thought about. I’m interested in depressing realities that haunt me. They’ve haunted artists and thinkers far beyond me in every way, but I deal with them through my own point of view.”

The themes that Allen returns to so regularly in his movies are usually dark ones. This is obviously the case in explicitly bleak stories, like Match Point, but even his lightest fare is touched with darker themes.  Irrational Man is a story that expresses an unvarnished picture of Woody Allen’s world view.

Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a philosophy professor who has lost his way. His study of the great minds has not made him happy—he has lost all faith in his vocation and hope for his future. “Abe is a guy who has always tried to do something positive with his life,” says Phoenix. “He’s gotten involved with political action and traveled to disaster areas around the world trying to help people. But terrible things happen to him and after awhile he starts to feel like nothing he does really makes a difference. And while he has enjoyed teaching in the past, he feels that very few of his students are going to be transformed in any significant way by what they learn in his class. Most will go on to ordinary lives and won’t ever examine life after they pass their last test.” Says Allen: “What happens to Abe is that the ugliness and pain of existence and the terrible frailties of people have worn him down. He feels that he’s a personal failure because he’s never been able to make a mark. He’s just written all these erudite papers that have stimulated other professors and students to talk. But he’s reached a point where he just couldn’t care less about it anymore.”

irrational_man_3_stone_phoenixAbe’s reputation as a controversial thinker with a tragic life precedes his arrival at Braylin, a small college on the East Coast, where he is to teach a summer session. He is both a subject of faculty gossip and great anticipation by the students. While Abe lives up to his reputation as an eccentric and charismatic man, the intensity of his gloom is unexpected. He also surprises his class by informing them that a lot of philosophy is no more than empty verbiage that doesn’t stand up TO the questions of real life.

Soon after his arrival at Braylin, Abe becomes involved with Rita Richards (Parker Posey), an unhappily married science professor. “Rita is a woman who feels stifled and trapped,” says Posey. “She’s not satisfied teaching; she’s drinking too much, smoking pot, and daydreaming about another life—something more fulfilling and passionate. She’s built up a fantasy about Abe that when he arrived he’d fall in love with her and eventually rescue her.” Says Allen: “People must have told her that he’s a dynamic guy who really loves women, so she thinks that he’ll be the one that can get her out of her rat trap. She’s aggressive with him sexually and he is compliant, but he’s not really able to do anything.” Says Posey: “Abe ends up not having any more potency than her husband does. He’s unable to deliver and feels bad about that. He comes across as being distant, but he is really confused and lost—he’s not present.”

irrational_man_4_stone_phoenixMeanwhile, Abe initiates a friendship with one of his students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), a bright young woman who has grown up at Braylin, where her parents are professors. “Jill is a clean-cut girl who’s always been on the straight path to somewhere, but she really doesn’t know where that is,” says Stone. “She’s been in this small town her whole life, so there’s something that draws her to taking this philosophy course which she hopes will expand her view of the world. And Abe, who is this tortured, poetic artist, is the human equivalent of everything she’s wanted to explore in her life but hasn’t really known how to do on her own.” Says Allen: “Abe is a lonely guy and he sees Jill as someone he can talk to. He’s not thinking about her romantically, but he has a serious intellectual connection with Jill which keeps growing until she becomes the person he spends most of his time with.”

Jill has a steady boyfriend in Roy (Jamie Blackley), who must put up with her growing fascination about Abe. Despite her constant assurances to Roy that she’s committed to him, she talks about Abe’s amazing qualities virtually non-stop. “It’s constant,” says Blackley. “All day long it’s ‘Abe did this, and Abe said that, and Abe has this fascinating idea.’” Says Stone: “Once Jill sees Abe, Roy starts to look a little bit like Greek yogurt—good for you but not necessarily exciting—and Abe is like the poisonous fruit topping on the Greek yogurt.”

Roy is deeply in love with Jill and willing to hang on, despite his sense that she’s slipping away. “The thing that’s really striking about Roy is how patient and understanding he is,” says Blackley. “From the beginning he’s questioning her interest in Abe, but he puts it in the back of his mind until it becomes an issue and starts getting in the way of their relationship.” Says Stone: “At first I think that Jill really wants to believe that it’s just a friendly bond she’s forming with Abe, so she’s keeping her bases clear. But once she starts pushing Abe to get involved, she knows she is lying. I think she’s trying to have her cake and eat it too because she’s young and confused and wants the best of both worlds.”

It first becomes evident to Jill that there is something seriously wrong with Abe when he picks up a loaded gun at a party and plays Russian Roulette, spinning the chamber several times. While Jill is terrified, she finds a way to justify this reckless action in her mind. “Abe turns everything into a philosophy lesson,” says Stone, “and Jill is an eager student of those lessons because she’s trying to be a radical thinker like him. As scared as she is, she’s in a bubble, wanting to see the best in these situations that are unfolding in front of her.” Also, Jill is falling for the romantic idea that she will be the one who will liberate Abe from the hole that he’s in. “The idea that she can rescue somebody who’s in such an alcoholic, downward, suicidal spiral is selfishly rewarding for her,” says Stone. “She’s never had the experience of helping someone out of a dark place—and she doesn’t realize that can lead you into the darkness too.”

Abe’s life turns around after a completely unexpected event. He and Jill are sharing a meal at a diner when they happen to overhear a highly emotional conversation in the next booth. Abe and Jill both react to the conversation, but Abe quickly becomes consumed with what he hears. He secretly decides that the time has come to get involved. “Abe decides he’s going to take the bull by the horns and chooses to act,” says Allen. “It’s not an abstract action, like writing a letter to the New York Times or going on impotent protests. Here is a course of action that is within his grasp to perform that will really make a difference.”

Abe’s decision rejuvenates him. He transforms from somebody who is aimless and depressed to someone who has energy and exuberance. “He has a sudden appreciation of life,” says Allen. “He enjoys the taste of wine and sex again, and having a good hearty breakfast and getting sleep.” He wants to live. Says Phoenix: “Abe is able to re-embrace life because he finally has a clear-cut goal he believes in. It’s exactly what he’s been looking for without even knowing he was looking for it. Not only does he think he’s doing something positive but he places himself in an adventure, putting his plan into action.”

Not knowing the real reason, Jill assumes she is the cause of Abe’s sudden joy. “She sees herself as 100% responsible,” says Stone. “It was how much she understood him and how much she was there and told him how poetic he was. She finally saved him.”

The action that Abe is preparing to take is something irrational. He is able to rationalize it, but it’s not an argument that can hold up to scrutiny. Says Allen: “What Abe finds to believe in is this irrational enterprise, the product of his years of distortion and anger and frustration over the ways of the world and the ways of people.” Abe feels he can do what he does because he believes in challenging conventional norms. But he is anything but the man of reason he considers himself to be. Says Allen: “As Jill’s mother says in the film, Abe’s work is only a triumph of style; his substance doesn’t hold up if you pursue it. He’s good with words, he makes bright, educated arguments that sound good, but if you really take them to their marrow, they don’t stand up.”