Danny Peary on Film: Irrational Man, My One Question to Woody Allen



By Danny Peary

Irrational Man fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Before Woody Allen’s forty-sixth film (by his own count) plays in the Hamptons, you can see it in New York City, where it opened on Friday.

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone.
Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone.

The Synopsis in the Production Notes: “Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is at rock bottom emotionally, unable to find any meaning or joy in life…Soon after arriving to teach at a small town college, Abe gets involved with Rita Richards (Parker Posey), a lonely professor who wants him to rescue her from her unhappy marriage; and Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), his best student, who becomes his closest friend. While Jill loves her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley), she finds Abe’s tortured, artistic personality and exotic past irresistible…Pure chance changes everything when Abe and Jill overhear a stranger’s conversation and become drawn in. Once Abe makes a profound choice [to help the unfortunate woman be awarded child custody by murdering a corrupt judge], he is able to embrace life to the fullest again. But his decision sets off a chain of events…” I was surprised how many critics have ripped into Allen’s movie, including those who have called it an unfunny comedy despite Allen’s contention that it is not a comedy at all. I found the movie’s themes compelling so I was eager to attend the press conference for the film last Wednesday at the Palace Hotel in Manhattan. We film journalists usually detest press conferences because we can ask at most one question and often none at all because of the large number of press in the room. But I was relieved that I got in my question to Woody Allen and since the question dealt with perhaps the most significant theme of the movie, he spent–sorry, fellow journalists–a long time answering it.

Woody Allen. Danny Peary photo.
Woody Allen. Danny Peary photo.

Danny Peary: Abe commits murder in your movie but everything you write for him to say in your script to explain his reasons makes sense. So did you ever think of calling it Rational Man instead of Irrational Man?

Woody Allen: Well, it’s interesting. The original title to the movie was Crazy Abe. I thought Crazy Abe was a good title! But Sony begged me not to use that title. Everyone said, “Then everyone will think it’s a comedy for sure.” So we went through a lot of other titles. Many of them were pretentious and philosophical and dreadful, and they would have driven people away from the movie. Then it occurred to me that Irrational Man was a very good title. But I was aware that there’d been a book, because I read it with great pleasure years ago. But [Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy by William Barrett] wasn’t a fictional story–it was philosophical essays on different philosophers. And I thought not a lot of people would’ve read the book, that it was more than fifty years old, and that it was so different. So I felt there wouldn’t be a conflict.

I agree with you that Abe sounds rational all the time. He’s an intelligent man. And he can, within the parameters of craziness, make a case for what he’s doing. He thinks he’s helping a lady who’s in a terribly impotent position, losing her children to a very unfair judicial decision. The judge is kind of cozy with the husband, and she’s getting screwed in a very terrible way. And Abe thinks, I’m not going to let this happen. I write a lot of philosophical papers, I go demonstrate, I write letters to the Times. But [now] I’m going to take specific action, I’m going to do one specific thing that makes a tangible difference. I’m going to kill this judge and get him out of her life, and she’s going to have a better life because of it. So you can make a rational argument for it. And then you can come up against all the clichéd arguments against his plan: “Well, who are you to decide who lives and who dies?” and “You can’t possibly excuse murder as a solution.” But these are clichés and people do make these decisions all the time, as to who lives and who dies. They make them, from doctors to soldiers. Murder’s used all the time; it’s the common denominator through history for getting things done effectively. Just the other day, I read a book review or something in the New York Times and some Israeli guy was saying how the assassination of [Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin [in 1995] was one of the most effective assassinations. So, you can make an argument. Now, I would always refute that argument because there’s something inside us, it’s pre-intellectual, that tells us, “You can’t do that.”

At the center of this movie is an intellectual problem. Abe’s thinking, I’m doing something here that changes this woman’s life for the better. And [after committing what he thinks is the perfect murder] he suddenly can live, he can feel, he can have sex, he can enjoy the smell of perfume and the taste of wine because he’s alive. I was focused exclusively on the fact that the case could be made that Abe’s completely rational, as you say, but there’s something in us that tells us this can’t be right. Abe can make all the arguments in the world that are more intelligent and cogent than Jill’s, but there’s something inside Emma Stone’s character that’s pre-cerebral, that says, “You just can’t do that.” She’s right. You can’t do it.