The plot of Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, a moderately dark drama about a malcontent philosophy professor suffering from an excess of first-world problems, hinges on a conversation overheard by Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) and his student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) from a nearby diner booth. A woman, in tears, recounts to friends how a corrupt judge has conspired with her ex-husband to grant him full custody of their child, and describes the anguish she feels as a result. Jill remarks that it sounds like it would be a good thing if the judge got cancer, but Abe, more intent on an active solution to the woman’s woes, decides it would be more practical to simply kill him.
It’s a flimsy premise upon which to base a philosophical exploration of the dark power of rationalization—Abe half-heartedly persuades himself that the murder is justifiable because the judge has no family, and is overstepping his bounds as an arbiter of justice—but it’s also distinctly uncomfortable when you consider that Allen has had his own share of parental disputes decided in a court of law. In 1993, he lost custody of his three adopted children to his former partner, Mia Farrow, and was denied visitation rights to his daughter, Dylan, who had accused him of molesting her. In February last year, a few months before Allen announced Irrational Man was going into production, the case was rehashed after Dylan Farrow published an open letter at The New York Times describing how her father had sexually assaulted her as a child. Given Allen’s rapid pace and prodigious output, it’s possible he was writing the movie during that time, and watching the film, it’s hard to separate Abe’s murderous urges from Allen’s own desires. Throughout his career, Allen’s movies have been elaborate fantasies based on his own specific predilections and neuroses—some glorious, some troubling, but all branded with the unmistakable id of their creator.
Allen has pondered the possibilities of moral justification for murder before, often using Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as inspiration (the novelist is mentioned in Irrational Man, and Crime and Punishment was the basis for Allen’s 1989 movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which a character, Judah, hires a hit man to kill his mistress after she threatens to reveal their affair to his wife). 2005’s Match Point had a similar storyline—a former tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) murders his pregnant mistress (Scarlett Johansson) after she refuses to have an abortion. In both movies, the protagonist ends up getting away with the crime, and facing a happy and fulfilling future. Match Point, like Irrational Man, stands out mostly for its stilted dialogue and remarkably blasé attitude to murder, but it does contain attempts to wrestle with the concept of right and wrong. “It would be fitting if I were apprehended,” says Meyer’s character, Chris, in a voice-over. “At least there would be some small sign of justice—some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.” Crimes and Misdemeanors’s Judah, meanwhile, suffers from guilt about what he’s done before suddenly finding relief, as he describes to a friend on the premise he’s describing an idea for a screenplay.
After the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt … Suddenly it’s not an empty universe at all but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. He’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse—an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then, one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him, and mysteriously, the cloud has lifted.
Given that he’s a philosophy professor, Irrational Man’s Abe doesn’t spend much time analyzing the moral justification of his desire to kill Judge Thomas Spangler. And (spoilers ahead) after he does, he’s completely invigorated by the act. Allen, a devoted Freudian, seems to present Abe as having an imbalance between his life and death drives. In the first part of the movie, he lacks a will to live, drinking single-malt Scotch all day, telling Jill that he’s too far gone to ever find love, and finding himself physically unable to consummate an affair with a chemistry professor (Parker Posey). In one scene, he grabs a gun and plays a game of Russian roulette with himself in front of a group of his horrified students. “He’s so self-destructive, but he’s so brilliant,” coos Jill.
Killing a man, somewhat neatly, gives Abe newfound zest for life. He regains his appetite, he overcomes his reluctance to have an affair with Jill, and he also gets his libido back. “What happened to the philosophy professor?” Posey’s character asks in one post-coital scene. “You were like a caveman.” Freud’s theory was that the tenets of civilized society frequently clash with man’s libidinal urges, forcing him to repress them, which in turn leads to neurosis. Freed from moral restriction, Abe is newly liberated, kissing Jill publicly at a concert, taking her to the beach, and feasting on French toast at a diner instead of his usual coffee.
The film critic David Thomson has described Allen as “a major-league fantasist, in which he is the central figure,” adding that “his mingling with attractive actors and actresses has been an immense fantasy inspiration to him.” Irrational Man fantasizes about murder, but also, less intriguingly, about its protagonist being an object of extraordinary desire to everyone he meets. The news of his arrival on campus is buzzed about by students and teachers alike. “I hear he has affairs with his students,” says one young woman excitedly, while an older professor remarks that the appointment will “put some Viagra in the philosophy department.” Upon arrival, Lucas has the charisma and heavy-lidded, wackadoodle charm of Phoenix, but he’s also a mess—overweight, sweaty, and inebriated. Still, neither his washed-up appearance nor the uninspired nature of his classes (“Philosophy is verbal masturbation,” he tells his students) seems to lessen his appeal.
Phoenix is just the latest actor to play a stand-in for the larger character of Allen, given that at 79, the director is now too old to plausibly play himself as a sex object. But this is a fairly recent concession. In 1996, at the age of 61, he successfully wooed the 29-year-old Julia Roberts in Everyone Says I Love You, the year after he had an affair with Mira Sorvino’s 20-something prostitute in Mighty Aphrodite. In 1979’s Manhattan, Allen’s 40-something character, Isaac, dates a 17-year-old schoolgirl played by Mariel Hemingway (the film is believed to be based on Allen’s real-life experiences dating 16-year-old Stacey Nelkin, whom he met on the set of Annie Hall and dated while she was attending Stuyvesant High School). In her 2015 memoir, Out Came the Sun, Hemingway describes how Allen invited her on an unchaperoned trip to Paris shortly after she turned 18. “Our relationship was platonic, but I started to see that he had a kind of crush on me, though I dismissed it as the kind of thing that seemed to happen any time middle-aged men got around young women,” she writes.
Even putting aside the ethical concerns about Allen, the allegations by Dylan Farrow, and the long list of films he’s made about men having preoccupations with much younger women (2014’s Magic in the Moonlight paired 53-year-old Colin Firth with 25-year-old Emma Stone, while Phoenix, by contrast, is only 14 years older then her), the secondary problem with Allen’s filmmaking as a romanticized expression of his id is that it spawns art that just isn’t very good. Irrational Man is turgid to the point of ridiculousness and absurdly anachronistic—having not bothered to research what it might be like living on a 2015 college campus, Allen’s Braylin is an institution from 50 years ago, in which teachers sleep with students without consequence, philosophy lecturers are rock stars, people idly skim through hardback books in the library, and Jill’s piano recital is the social event of the week. Allen’s dialogue, when spoken by actors who aren’t exactly like him, inevitably sounds like a poorly drafted student play, and even Phoenix, one of the most gifted actors of his generation, struggles to make it sound plausible. (“My brief time working on elevators during my college days might now pay off” is how one particularly important scene is introduced.)
These manifestations of inner turmoil might be cathartic for the filmmaker, but they’re inevitably awful to watch—2007’s Cassandra’s Dream is a particularly poorly realized attempt to give the lives of two working-class brothers mythological significance. By contrast, when Allen pays homage to other artists or other eras, like Tennessee Williams in Blue Jasmine, or the thriving artist’s paradise of the Roaring ’20s in Midnight in Paris, he’s able to spin his stories into something more ambitious, and more intellectually worthwhile.
Perhaps ironically, given that he reliably churns out a movie each year, the adjective most consistently applied to Allen these days is “lazy.” Magic in the Moonlight, wrote Variety’s Justin Chang, is “world-weary to the point of exhaustion. Characters don’t interact so much as stand about rattling off plot points and moral positions, as if the effort required to actually dramatize something—as opposed to merely shoving it into the mouth of the nearest bystander—would cause the whole thing to collapse.” Allen himself concurs, telling a press conference in 2007, “I’m not a dedicated filmmaker, I’m lazy. To me, making a film is not the be-all end-all of my life. I want to shoot the film and go home and get on with my life.” For as long as he’s able to make his movies in a couple of weeks and demand very little from his actors, he’ll continue to draw stars of Phoenix and Stone’s caliber to his projects. But for audiences, there’s an increasing queasiness associated with his films, and their insistence on presenting Allen’s personal moral quandaries as art.