In Defence of Irrational Man

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Contrary to popular belief, there is absolutely nothing half-assed or over-familiar about Irrational Man. Inspired as much by the 70s campus novels of authors like Philip Roth, John Barth and Saul Bellow as by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Irrational Man is at once a self-loathing confessional and a self-aggrandizing fantasy. It unflinchingly probes the depths of protagonist Abe’s self-destructive narcissism while also surrounding him with women drawn against their better judgement to his tortured brilliance.

When the film begins, he’s in the midst of a deep depression, increasingly retreating from social interaction as a way of shielding his bloated ego. He’s taken on a new position as professor of Philosophy at Braylin College, and instantly rejects everybody who offers him companionship, opting to instead wallow aimlessly in chronic self-pity. Luckily for him, he’s smart enough paint his self-imposed isolation in a noble, romantic light, and the campus soon floods with rumours about him. Like many Allen characters, he’s confident in his writing but extremely maladjusted when it comes to his personal life, so he effectively erases himself from the world and has his writing supplant him. Eventually, he wills himself into forming two relationships: one a mentor-type friendship with his best student, Jill Pollard, largely because she endlessly idealises him; the other a casual courtship with Rita, a married chemistry professor. Jill at first devours Abe’s misanthropic musings, then she grows concerned and takes it upon herself to re-kindle his zest for life. If that sounds like a generic set-up, that’s because it is, but the power of Irrational Man lies in its ability to take conventional cinematic situations and then push them into increasingly absurd and uncomfortable territory.

So many critics have written the film off of as a simple re-hash of Crimes and Misdemeanours and Match Point, but Irrational Man is far more structurally oblique. In those films, a character finds themselves in a personal crisis position where murder seems like the only possible out, and then they work on finding ways to justify it. In this, Abe begins with a justification for murder, then sets out to find a situation to which his theories can be applied. Divorced from personal stakes and a sense of opportunism, the act only seems to exist for the sake of pure intellectual play.

In an early scene, Abe discourages his students from taking his classes too seriously, because there’s a limit to the usefulness of theoretical thinking. We’re given the impression that, over the course of the movie, Abe will take his own advice and gradually reject the life of the mind for, well, life. But the irony is that even when Abe chooses to make an impact on the outside world he’s still unable to break away from the sphere of the abstract and the theoretical. He keeps himself at a studied remove from the situation he seeks to interfere with, as if the murder he decides to carry out is nothing more than a philosophical puzzle whose pieces he can manoeuvre to reach his desired end. He appears to take no pleasure in committing the act itself, only in the extensive plotting of the murder and, afterwards, hearing people talk about it. To emphasise the point, the murder itself is painstakingly designed as to be as simple and swift as possible.

Abe spends a great deal of time researching and plotting out what he believes will be the perfect murder, continuously experimenting with inputs and calculates potential outcomes). And a large portion of this research is intended to create a mental space wherein his actions are entirely justified, thereby keeping himself at an academic distance. he researches all of the judges’ negative actions, but never stops to ask whether he has a family that’ll be effected by his passing; the judge himself is only onscreen for about 30 seconds, and has no dialogue. He treats murder as a minor act stripped of implications of morality and boiled down to a manner of pure aesthetics. His driving philosophy is that, in a Godless universe, questions of right and wrong become irrelevant as long as one can subjectively convince themselves of the correctness of their own actions; he essentially becomes the sole author of his own individualised moral code, simply to prove a point.

In pretty much any other movie – including the aforementioned Crimes and Match Point – the remainder of the narrative following the murder would focus on Abe struggling to cope with his conscience while trying to evade capture. But Allen deliberately removes these elements from the plot. There are only indirect suggestions of an investigation being made into the incident, heard through rumours and TV reports and newspapers. Because Abe is convinced he’s committed the perfect crime, he doesn’t fear being tracked down, and he’s right not to – he never even gets questioned by the police. That he should be free of consequences is no surprise, but Abe isn’t even plagued by guilt. What’s takes its place? An emotionally complex stretch where Abe gets his groove back, energized by the exhilarating sensation of having gotten away with murder. This is a familiar fiction scenario offset by a toxic twist. After seeing so many scenes of Abe trapped in a down-rotten state, we share in his excitement, yet our reaction is tainted by the knowledge that he’s able to take charge of his life only by taking another.

Somewhere around this point, Jill takes over as the protagonist. Her emotional dynamism, low-key strength and fierce determination Abe’s stubborn insularity into a far more negative light. Her intellectual attraction to Abe grow into a physical one, which grows into an unhealthy co-dependency, rooted mostly in a thirst for validation that is itself solipsistic. She then develops a growing awareness of the flaws and self-contradictions in her mentor’s logic, and when her romanticized image of him as a writer is tarnished so is her romanticized image of him as a person. It’s only when she becomes aware of her culpability in bringing out Abe’s worst qualities that she’s able to free herself from his influence and achieve some kind of growth; all while Abe is just retreating further and further into self-justification. This process is complicated by Jill’s deep-set feelings of inferiority. There’s a great scene, just after Jill has figured out Abe’s secret, where he elaborately argues his piece using carefully cultivated rhetoric, and she can only counter-act him with a simple, common-sense idea of morality.

Crimes and Match Point both end on a similar note: through a failure of both law enforcement and structural catharsis, the law enforcement system fails and the crime goes unpunished, letting the murderer off Scott-free and frustrating our desire for narrative justice. These endings are pitched as grand tragedy, screaming in the face of a world that’s absent of any sense of concrete moral order and a bureaucratic society that attempts but routinely fails to impose one. Though Irrational Man gives Abe his comeuppance, the ending is no less despairing. When Abe dies as a result of slipping on the torch he’d previously tried to dissuade Jill from choosing as a fairground prize, it doesn’t come across as divine intervention, but an absurdist joke about the tentative and random nature of retribution. It almost seems like Allen deliberately set out to come up with the most contrived climax possible: What were the odds that Abe would’ve won the game in the first place? What were the odds that Jill would’ve chosen the least attractive prize on display? What were the odds that she would’ve brought it along with her to her piano recital?

Irrational Man (2015), directed by Woody Allen, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros.. Certificate 12A. 

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English student, filmmaker and writer for Alternate Takes, MUBI Notebook, Film International, Mcsweeney's, Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, The Vulgar Cinema and Sound on Sight. Too crazy for boys' town, too much of a boy for crazy town.

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