Irrational Man full movie review - An excellent, thought-provoking and occasionally depressing examination of existentialist morality
Inspired by the 1866 novel "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this is an excellent, thought-provoking and occasionally depressing examination of existentialist morality.
Woody Allen's script is well-observed and insightful but the dialogue is sometimes overwritten with characters speaking in an unnaturally sophisticated manner. The first half an hour or so has shades of earlier and similarly depressing Allen films such as "Interiors", "September", "Another Woman" and the tragic storyline of "Melinda and Melinda". The remainder is reminiscent of the superlative "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and the dreadful "Match Point", which is unsurprising given that both of those films likewise drew inspiration from "Crime and Punishment". Allen's direction was as superb as ever.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix in a wonderful performance as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor who is in the midst of a long-running existential crisis. He arrives to take up a teaching position at Braylin University, where his reputation as a womaniser who sleeps with his students has preceded him. The cause of his depression is also a subject of gossip among both faculty and students with one theory attributing it to his best friend being decapitated by insurgents in Iraq. This turns out to have a grain of truth in it as Abe's friend was in reality killed by a landmine. Abe soon finds that he has an admirer in the vivacious chemistry professor Rita Richards, played by the always excellent Parker Posey, who is bored by her humdrum life with her husband Paul. The two of them try to pursue a sexual relationship but his depression manifests itself in his inability to get an erection.
Rita is not the only woman in his life as his student Jill Pollard, played very well by Emma Stone, soon becomes smitten with him as well. Jill is an extremely intelligent, perceptive and compassionate young woman who forms the bedrock of the storyline. Although Abe attempts to keep his relationship with Jill platonic, she gradually falls in love with him. The signs are obvious to everyone, including Jill's parents and her understandably jealous long-time boyfriend Roy. Abe attempts to dismiss Jill's interest in him as her being attracted to the romantic notion of having a relationship with her professor. This was probably how it began but it becomes something deeper as things progressed. While there is nothing to confirm it, I'm also convinced that she was very taken with the idea of helping the deeply troubled Abe deal with his many problems.
The film does such a good job at portraying the sense of hopelessness and malaise that accompanies depression that I found the first half an hour quite difficult to watch. However, it changed gears at that point. While having lunch in a diner, Abe and Jill overhear a distraught woman named Carol telling her friends that her neglectful ex-husband is going to win custody of their two children as his lawyer is friends with the presiding judge Thomas Spangler, who abuses the considerable power that his position affords him. As he listens to Carol's story, Abe decides to murder the judge. He believes that no one will suspect him as he has no connection to Carol and has nothing to gain from Spangler's death. This crucial decision has a profound effect on Abe to the point that it gives him a reason to live for the first time in over a year. He stalks Spangler for several weeks before he poisons him with cyanide, which he obtained from the chemistry lab, in order to induce a heart attack. After Spangler dies, Abe's mood improves even more and, with his newfound zest for life, his friendship with Jill blossoms into a romance.
In his narration, Abe justifies Spangler's murder on the basis that he was a bad man whose death made the world a better place, citing Hannah Arendt's famous "banality of evil" quote about Adolf Eichmann for that purpose. Given the evidence presented about him, I have no doubt that Spangler was indeed a bad man. However, whether the world is a better place without such people is a question which Abe should have posed in one of his philosophy classes as opposed to applying his theory in the real world. Abe likes to think that Spangler's murder was motivated by the better angels of his nature and perhaps it was, to some degree. However, it becomes quite clear that the murder was at least partially motivated by Abe's desire to pull off the perfect crime, another thought experiment which is best confined to a classroom. In that sense, I don't think that Spangler's murder, if it had happened in real life, would have been any less immoral than the murder of the 14-year-old Bobby Franks by Leopold and Loeb in 1924. The only difference is that Spangler is a far less sympathetic victim. There is no such thing as a perfect legal system even in the most democratic countries with the best human rights records. However, I would much prefer an imperfect legal system to the vigilante justice of private citizens committing premeditated murder because they believe that their victims are bad people. I highly doubt that I am alone in that.
Outside of Russian literature, the influence of Alfred Hitchcock's work on the film is evident. While it has no relevance to the plot (unless it was intended to represent our inaccurate impressions of others), the Hall of Mirrors scene was likely a reference to the climax of Orson Welles' film "The Lady from Shanghai". In addition to the three main cast members, the film features good performances from Jamie Blackley as Roy, Ethan Phillips and Betsey Aidem as Jill's parents and Bette Middler's lookalike daughter Sophie von Haselberg as April.
Overall, this is an often fascinating exploration of morality and the evil that men do even if they think it is for the greater good.