Thursday, August 20, 2015

Irrational Man

IRRATIONAL MAN            B                
USA  (96 m)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Woody Allen

Woody takes a stab at existential philosophy, love, death, the feeble actions of man, and even Divine providence in attempting to live with and comprehend the anxieties of the modern world.  While in many ways it veers towards similar themes of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, it does so in the absence of God, where moral guidelines are so much more subjective, different for each person, where each generation is seen as blindly trying to find their own way in a vacuous world filled with tragedies and pitfalls standing in the way.  Interestingly, the title of the film is also a 1958 book by William Barrett that does a good job tracing the roots of existentialism throughout history, highlighting a few central figures, and anointing it as the philosophy of our times.  While not exactly a novelization of the book, which is not even credited, much of the subject matter is discussed in a return to the college classroom, where Joaquin Phoenix plays a well-traveled philosophy professor named Abe Lucas whose reputation precedes him as he arrives for the summer session at fictional Braylin College (actually Salve Regina University in Newport), a small town in Rhode Island that braces for his arrival.  While he’s something of a brooding loner with an obvious drinking problem, the faculty find him something of an erratic disgrace while the students love how off-the-rails he seems to be.  While rumors fly about his whirlwind affairs, he’s actually built a fairly solid reputation from his writings.  But in terms of his overt pretentiousness, we’ve seen the man before in the works of James Toback’s THE GAMBLER (1974) starring James Caan and Robert Wyatt’s recent remake The Gambler (2014), starring Mark Wahlberg as the central figure of a man drowning in debt, who seemingly can’t help himself, loosely based upon a modern update of Dostoyevsky’s 1867 novella.  Wahlberg is a college literature professor that allows himself to engage in an affair with the best and brightest of his students, so it should come as no surprise when Phoenix does the same, singling out Emma Stone as Jill Pollard, who distinguishes herself with her well-reasoned writings.  Somehow drawn to his depressive state, she is nonetheless inspired by his dilapidated state and outsiderist thinking, which is so not like the more conventional thinking of her bland but more levelheaded boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley).  While pledging her love to Roy, she runs around on long walks and late night evenings with the professor, literally smitten by the worldly experience he brings into her life, which we hear in separate voiceover narrations from both of them, where she’s literally caught in his energy stream, thinking and talking about him all the time, where in the eyes of others they have become the “campus couple.”    

Abe, however, is stuck in a rut of disillusionment, alcoholism and self-pity, but that doesn’t stop the flirtations of a married chemistry professor Rita (Parker Posey), who was just waiting for his arrival as if he was the answer to her prayers, quickly snuggling up to him, arriving with his favorite drink in a rainstorm, not even deterred when she discovers he’s impotent.  Always wondered why Parker Posey didn’t work more often with Woody Allen, as her impeccable timing and comic wit, along with her sensational improvisational skills would seem like a perfect match, not to mention her modest ego and ability to be a team player, where she’s never been a diva personality, yet throughout her career she’s always delivered on camera.  Apparently it’s taken until she reached her late 40’s before they clicked, as she’s also scheduled to be in his next film as well.  Posey provides the needed charisma, while Phoenix continually dwells on his personal torment and anguish, yet he’s got two women infatuated with him.  Only in Woody world.  Yet that is part of the fun of the movie, as it’s well beyond the acceptance level of anything the audience would ever experience, yet it’s curiously close to the mindset of the director himself, who seems drawn to the subject of professionally inappropriate, which has followed him throughout his career.  Abe’s mindset mirrors that of the Allen characters he’s always played, mired in an apparently longstanding existential crisis, drawing on the feelings and sympathies of others, which they’re all too willing to give, seemingly having little to offer himself, where he feels suffocated by the claustrophobic feelings that are forever choking him.  While the film feels like another breezy and lightweight romantic comedy, where even the names of Kant, Kierkegaard, and Sartre were discussed by Allen’s own character Alvy Singer in ANNIE HALL (1977) nearly forty years ago, the film’s attraction appears to be the pursuit of happiness from the young developing life of Jill Pollard, who’s also, by the way, mastered the classical piano.  Then comes a moment that’s like turning on a light switch, where everything changes.  Suddenly it’s all about Abe’s transformation into a man of action and self-fulfillment, highlighted by a conversation Abe and Jill overhear in a diner where a distraught woman was on the verge of losing her children by a callous judge in a custody case.  Gone are the days of swilling Scotch into the wee hours of the night, making a wreck of his life, as suddenly this perfect stranger that he’s never spoken to has given him a reason for living, becoming obsessed with the idea of eliminating this judge with the perfect murder.

Abe is instantly motivated and happy, and while he avoided sexual contact with Jill before, suddenly he’s been invigorated, becoming a ravenous tiger in bed.  Sporting a smile instead of that dreary look of constant regret, Abe is a new man, dispensing with all the old philosophical baggage that sounded like a lot of crap to him anyway, as he’s discovered a new reason for living.  While this may conjure up thoughts of MATCH POINT (2005) and certainly Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Abe has got his mind clear of guilt, believing he’s doing society, and this woman, a favor by getting rid of this judge and making the world a better place.  While it all sounds like vigilantism gone amok, it certainly changes the focus of the film, where gone is the breezy comedy and suddenly we’ve entered dangerous territory, with the audience completely identifying with criminality, especially coming from Woody Allen, who has tread these dirty waters before in his own messy personal life.  There’s a kind of childlike naiveté with the way Allen approaches the subject, like a child’s delight at opening a new present.  Suddenly the focus is on murder, and the fascination with pulling off the perfect crime, entering the area of expertise of Hitchcock, like his real-time chamber drama ROPE (1948), or one of his favorite writers, Patricia Highsmith, adapting her novel Strangers On a Train into a 1951 film, while Wim Wenders adapted another Highsmith novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, into The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund) (1977).  Each of these films deals with the idea of pulling off the perfect murder.  The narrative momentum completely shifts to Abe’s new obsession, spelled out in psychological detail through voiceover as the “idea” literally takes over the film, where Abe’s character has a noticeably sunnier disposition, getting this all off his chest, where we’re led to believe he might actually get away with it.  And what sympathy is there for the judge anyway?  Abe is coming out of his shell and all is sunny and light, until Jill gets word of rumors that could possibly link Abe to the crime.  While he never thoroughly considered her response, as they shared an initial macabre elation at the judge’s demise, all the while thinking she loved and adored him, she’s actually pretty queasy with the revelation that he might somehow be connected to the crime and seems willing to expose it all, demanding that he confess and take responsibility.  This is the real world, after all.  Or is it?  Just what game are we playing here?  Jill’s interference makes the entire situation darker and more complicated, as she’s not the blindly devoted follower he’d hoped for, as she has a mind of her own, and she wants no part of this filthy matter.  This is a like a psychological schism happening exactly where he thought he’d committed the perfect crime, as he was in no way linked to this woman, so what possible motive could he have?  Abe’s happiness turns to grief and despair, and we’re back on murky grounds again with his future slipping away, where he has to act to set things straight.  It’s a bit baffling, where there’s obvious humor in the dark depravity of his thinking, the ramifications of which are obscured by the absurdity of what we continually witness onscreen.  The world is eventually made right again, as if through blind chance or Divine providence, interfering in ways we, the living, could never suspect.  Not sure why all the horrible reviews, as some stoop as low as thinking this is one of the worst Allen films, but it’s hardly that, as it’s meant to be amusingly disturbing, like a scary ride at a carnival.  But when it comes so close to the author’s own twisted internal psyche, that glimpse takes viewers on one hell of a ride, accompanied throughout by a live version of Ramsey Lewis’s “The ‘In’ Crowd,” The "In" Crowd ~ Ramsey Lewis Trio - YouTube (5:51).

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