Irrational Man or pop existentialist déjà-vu

Irrational Man or pop existentialist déjà-vu

It doesn’t happen often that I feel like leaving the room at the cinema or that I fall asleep on those uncomfortable chairs, yet I would not blame the Christmas lunches for the restless heaviness I felt the other night. Rather his could be blamed on the forty-fourth Woody Allen’s effort, Irrational Man. An effort, because this was a long hour and a half spent with Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) and Jill Pollard (Emma Stone).

In the most perfect setting of a beautiful Road Island college, the story of a renowned, tired and existentialist philosophy professor who bewitches his most promising student with his eternally misunderstood charm, takes place. Far too brilliant to love life and to enjoy the naive amazement and freshness represented by young Jill, Abe Lucas finds a meaning to his existence by an act of radical choice – a murder – that while restoring a reason and some inspiration, splits him from humanity and morality.

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone prove certainly adapted to their roles and do not disappoint as the cynical philosopher and the curious student; the entire ideological framework behind them is clearly just another repetition of the more neurotic Hollywood director though.

Life is meaningless, chaos is the only constant, cynicism is the spice of life, so much of philosophy is just verbal masturbation, and there will always be a man smarter than anyone else to explain the futility of waking up each morning.

Allen has dissected, dismembered and adapted this insight to every one of his films for over three decades, Irrational Man is just the creature most obvious and therefore less successful.

For example, if in Whatever Works (2009) through the meeting of the gifted misanthrope Boris Yellnikoff with the childish and naive Melodie St. Ann Celestine witty dialogues sprang, in Irrational Man Allen took the same character (or umpteenth alter ego), added 15kg to him and removed 30 years, then uses an awakening muse of the genius (or so she is believed to be) to showcase his intellectual caliber.

Nevertheless, the result is a flat film, which lacks pathos even in turning points. Such as when Abe Lucas makes the decision to kill a corrupt judge to give justice to a stranger he has overheard in a diner. There is no emotion, nor misery, just the anxiously search for meaning of a man who claims to be moral, who wants to realise Nietzsche’s philosophy, but turns out to be silly in his degeneration and not being up to the ideal of the Übermensch.


Devoid of in-depth analysis, the frequent philosophical quotations ranging from Kant to Sartre are empty lessons, assimilated without the depth required by their thinkers, flattened to their most basic and useful explanation for the purpose of the film and the pleasure of the crowd.

The film’s message is: life, especially for men of great sensitivity, is a desert of boredom in which a tyrant randomness dominates, coming out of nowhere, like a hurricane, to sweep away those glimmers of meaning, the traces found in sand that seemed to open a way out of the desert. Thank you Irrational Man for enlightening us.

Many philosophers are improperly expropriated and sold in their wittier quotes that are totally used out of context, but above all to emerge again and more unfairly. Dostoyevsky, has of late, became Woody Allen’s new adjustable puppet and an integral part of his initial intuition about life.

As the movie progressed toward the fulfilment of the murder, in my heart I still hoped the Russian author would not be used and sacrificed: unfortunately it happened. His work Crime and Punishment is now the cutting-edge of intellectual stratagem of Hollywood: the concept of the man who goes beyond the traditional moral parameters in the name of a higher purpose definitely had an impact on Allen, who used it in more worthy attempts like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) or Match Point (2005) but has failed miserably here.

Lucas’ inner anguish, the ethical reasons and the psychological consequences involved in the murder committed are treated with the annoying commercial levity of comedies, proving once again that Hollywood sarcasm is not able to debate every issue.

An unsuccessful hybrid, halfway between a comedy and a thriller, Irrational Man is therefore a pillaging of certain philosophies, the existentialist and Nietzsche’s, by an artist who has lost originality but not the stubborn belief that he has the intuition of the century.

Without renewing himself, Allen shoots movie after movie searching for a sense that he doesn’t find and maybe doesn’t exist, and he seems to have stopped trying to find it seriously, preferring the neurotic repetition of the same caricatures, almost hoping that it will be the meaning of life he wishes to find.

Rather than being about Nietzsche’s Übermensch philosophy, Woody Allen seems to have shot a film about the philosophy of eternal return and repetition. Maybe it is true that there is a difference between the “theoretical world of bulls–t and real life”, but it certainly won’t be found here.

“The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment


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