Irrational Man is a current movie about a despondent philosophy professor who moves to a small-town college, his relationships with a student and a fellow professor, and his commission of what the film’s press materials describe as “an existential act” which allows him to “find the will to live.” It is one of the few depictions in recent mainstream films of a philosophy professor as a main character.
Metacritic shows the movie, directed by Woody Allen, getting mixed reviews, but the real question is: what do philosophy professors think about a movie that puts one of them on the big screen? In what follows, Marcus Hedahl (US Naval Academy), Kristina Meshelski (CSU Northridge), James South (Marquette), and Daniel Weinstock (McGill) share some brief thoughts about the movie. Feel free to chime in. And watch out, too, as there are a couple of spoilers. In case you haven’t seen it, I’ve posted the trailer below the reviews.
If one is more intimately familiar with a particular element of a film than the average bear, at some point the willing suspension of disbelief is likely to come crashing down, demonstrating the limits of even this most benign form of doxastic voluntarism. I went to Irrational Man with this limitation in mind, reminding myself that at some point we, as teachers of philosophy, would have to face absurd simplifications of our reality. So I did not expect anything more insightful or complicated than Philosophy for Dummies but I was, perhaps unfairly, expecting something more insightful and complicated than the chapter titles of Philosophy for Dummies.
Sadly, Allen — who once joked that he only read Kierkegaard and Freud so he could get girls — now seems content to use their McNuggets of Wisdom™ in order to defend the girls he has pursued and the ways in which he has pursued them. Rumor and its connection to truth are a central theme of Irrational Man, and they serve as about as subtle an allusion to Allen’s personal troubles as the allusions to Socrates’s trial in The Phaedo. While the story is by no means centered around it, there is lying beneath the surface, a troubling defense of the relationship between its main characters: Abe Lucas, an older, dour philosopher, and Jill Pollard, his much younger, bright-eyed undergraduate student.
In part because it’s meant to serve as an intellectual justification for relationships like it, Abe and Jill’s relationship fails miserably as act of storytelling: It is — and in fact has to be — almost completely passionless and devoid of excitement. If it weren’t, it couldn’t demonstrate that this relationship is really much more about academic stimulation and intellectual challenge than physical beauty, sexual attraction, and potential exploitation. In the film, in fact, Abe and Jill’s romance is only allowed to begin after Abe notes that Jill would be equally enticing if her beauty were reflected through a Funhouse mirror – a trick the script deftly accomplishes by placing the characters … in front of a Funhouse mirror … in an actual Funhouse, a move that at least has the virtue of supporting that film’s apparent operating assumption that academics continue live in the 1950’s.
Yet Abe and Jill’s relationship also fails as a defense of such relationships because Allen is unwilling to face the messy reality that such a defense would actually require. Instead, we are left with fortune cookie versions of the wisdom of Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Satre, and Simone de Beauvoir. This last moment was particularly telling: Without a hint of irony, we see Abe explaining to Jill the inherent limitations of defining women solely through their relationships with men, leaving us with a female protagonist who is part Glaucon part Alcebiades, a woman with nothing more to say than, “It cannot be but so, O wise man,” and “Your genius is a total turn-on, we should date.”
Woody Allen is good at what he does. But I don’t see what the point is anymore. He produces films at a rate that would only be appropriate in some kind of past era, an era in which we only had films to entertain ourselves and no television or internet. (Relatedly, one of the stars of the film, Emma Stone, recently told Conan O’Brien that she had to explain to him what Twitter was. This shows in the movie, as Allen’s college students do not bring laptops to class or try to do the reading on their phones; they all have regular old textbooks.) Still there are enjoyable aspects to this movie, and I did enjoy those aspects. Yet, it is impossible for a philosopher to watch the film and not think of recent real-world sexual assault and harassment accusations in the philosophy profession (not to mention accusations Woody Allen has faced).
The impressive thing about the film is how realistic it is about some aspects of academia, and thus how successful it manages to be as a comedic send-up of the white bourgeoisie. Because of this it is possible to watch the film and laugh at Jill’s (Emma Stone) infatuation with her obviously ridiculous professor (Joaquin Phoenix), and simply pity them equally when they inevitably end up in bed together. In the film, their relationship isn’t creepy at all. It is dumb, but there is no hint that Phoenix’s Professor Abe Lucas has done something wrong by succumbing to Jill’s very persistent efforts to get him in bed. It is the movie version of all those thought experiments people assert in the comments section of philosophy blogs, “Well a grown woman can decide to have a sexual relationship with a professor. How is that wrong? Are you saying that she isn’t capable of making her own choices?” No, I’m not saying that. I was never saying that.
But that’s the thing; I don’t actually know anyone like Jill (or the science professor, Rita, played by Parker Posey, for that matter). In the film, Jill is never more drunk than Abe Lucas (never drunk at all it seems). She never tells her boyfriend she is afraid of Lucas. She never worries about how her career will go if they sleep together, or if they don’t sleep together, or if people think they slept together.
By the latter half of the film, as the murder plotline is in full swing, the whole thing starts to feel like some kind of sneaky misdirection, like how Gone with the Wind gave you a million things to worry about except the plight of the actual slaves. There are ethical puzzles, ethical discussions, ethical philosophies in this film, but they are never about the ethical problem that is right in front of your face, namely the professor/student relationship. If you are interested in the ethical issues Allen meant to foreground in Irrational Man, you would be better off watching Crimes and Misdemeanors.
I went into Irrational Man expecting a rather superficial take on academic philosophy and a certain cringe factor, especially in the relationship between the student, Jill, and the apparently famous older philosopher, Abe Lucas. Instead, what I saw was a very knowing film, one in which Woody Allen portrays the older philosopher as morally and intellectually bankrupt (as well as an alcoholic and physical wreck) and shows his relationship to Jill as immature. Those facts were a bit surprising. While I’ll let others speak to the gender politics and, more notably, the racial politics of the film (was there a person of color even in the film?), I want to focus on what struck me as most significant about the film. In short, the movie shows an utter contempt for philosophy and its ability to make an impact on someone’s life.
A big contrast point for me is the way the philosopher in Crimes and Misdemeanors is portrayed. In that movie, the philosopher, Louis Levy, is treated by the Woody Allen-played documentarian as a font of wisdom and his every word is meant to be mesmerizing. Still, at the end of that movie, the philosopher, who has said so much about love and human connectedness, commits suicide. At least, as Camus would have it, that’s a philosophical response. By contrast, the fate that awaits Abe Lucas at the end of Irrational Man is comical; it is not as the direct result of his choice, but a chance event that (spoiler alert!) leads to his death. This suggests that Allen has grown to see the utter comicalness and uselessness of philosophy. Another point of comparison also occurs between the two movies. Irrational Man and Crimes and Misdemeanors, both crime thrillers, repeatedly make the point that there is no intrinsic meaning to life. Yet, of course, when push comes to shove, few of Allen’s characters have the ability to face up to that fact.
At this point, I’m reminded of the famous scene in one of Allen’s more praised (and notorious) films, Manhattan–another knowing nod in Irrational Man to the autobiography voyeurs of Allen’s reputation with younger women–where a character gives his reasons to live:
Why is life worth living? That’s a very good question. Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Like what? Okay, for me, I would say, Groucho Marx, to name one thing and Willie Mays, and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and Louie Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues,” Swedish movies, naturally, “Sentimental Education” by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, Tracy’s face …
With the exception of Tracy’s face, which is a product of nature, all the things listed are human creations. When Abe Lucas mentions the book he’s working on, it’s nothing like these creations—it’s a book on Heidegger and the Jews, and he even jokes that that’s just what the world needs, another book on that topic. Again, we see the utter futility of philosophy. What’s a book on Heidegger and the Jews going to tell us about the holocaust? How is thinking about the holocaust philosophically going to give us a reason to live? And when Abe Lucas acts to make the world a slightly better place, he finds himself in way over his philosophical head.
By way of conclusion, I can only contrast the unremitting bleakness of Irrational Man with the movie’s repeated use in the soundtrack of The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s 1965 version of “The ‘In’ Crowd.” It’s joyous, infectious, and in striking contrast in tone to the message of the movie. At 80 years old, it seems, Allen’s given us one new reason to live—not to think about the world, not to try to make the world a better place–but to create (as Allen does in making movies), and to enjoy the creations of others. That makes us part of “The ‘In’ Crowd” in a way philosophy never will.
In an early, seemingly throwaway scene of his latest movie, Irrational Man, the philosopher Abe Lucas lazily denounces the rigorism of Kant’s categorical imperative, which, notoriously, would require of moral agents that they never lie, even when lying is required to save the lives of innocents. In the only even remotely true-to-life representation of classroom interaction in the entire movie, a geeky student challenges Lucas, awkwardly trying out the argument according to which lies tend by their natures not to be isolated, but rather most often instantiate more general policies according to which it is ok to lie to achieve one’s ends. Lucas brushes the student aside with the observation that one cannot afford the moral angelism recommended by Kant in a world of murder and genocide.
But this scene is more central to Allen’s overall purpose than might initially meet the eye. For Lucas himself quickly finds himself in a situation in which a single dubiously justifiable violation of categorical moral prohibitions brings other more clearly ignominious violations in its train.
It is also a Kantian movie in a second sense. Whereas in earlier movies that it quite clearly echoes thematically, such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, Allen depicts a universe largely indifferent to the moral quality of agents, Irrational Man has fate, in the form of a small flashlight that falls from the purse of a character at exactly the right moment and in exactly the right way, doing the work of rewarding virtue and punishing vice. (There is a clear echo and counterpoint here of the ring that serves to exonerate the murderer in Match Point).
Allen has in earlier movies been fascinated by a sophomoric existentialism that makes much of the fact that luck rather than morality determines how people’s lives go. Abe Lucas is an instantiation of that pseudo-philosophy, from which Allen now seems to want to distance himself. It is a shame that he has done so in the context of a film that is otherwise among the most lazily plotted and awkwardly scripted that he has ever committed to the screen.