In "Irrational Man."Woody Allen spins a clever yarn about the treachery inherent in dark Romantic yearning, May-September romances, and the desire to live a life less ordinary.
In its first act, "Irrational Man" comes across as a run-of-the-mill academic comedy. A new philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Joquain Phoenix), comes to teach at the idyllic and thoroughly boring Braylin College, where he immediately captures the sexual interest of more than one generation of frustrated woman. For stifled chemistry professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), stuck in an unfulfilling faculty marriage, Abe's dark existential depression stirs yearnings for youth, escape, a last chance to run away to Spain with a mysterious stranger. For bright-eyed coed Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), on the other hand, Abe's suicidal disdain for the mundane joys of life stirs yearnings toward maturity, the chance to be something more sophisticated and edgy than a pair of music professor's daughter in this sleepy New England college town.
Meanwhile, Abe is just struggling to find a reason to go on. From spouting bon mots from Heidegger and Sartre on the futility of happiness to playing an impromptu game of Russian roulette in front of some students at a campus party, he is both the classic tortured soul stereotype and a seriously disturbed human being.
When Abe and Jill overhear a woman discussing how a corrupt judge is taking away her children in an unfair custody battle, Abe takes hold of an unlikely idea to bring his life meaning and joy. Murdering the judge to free the woman from this tortuous situation and make the world a slightly better place, he muses, could be the one meaningful act needed to give his life purpose.
And here's where "Irrational Man" leaves the genre of academic comedy behind and spins into something much more interesting. As Abe plots to kill the judge, he suddenly finds a zest for life heretofore missing. His impotence is cured, and he's able to consummate his affair with Rita. His appetite returns. He considers writing poetry. And after some reluctance on moral grounds, he leaps headlong into a romantic relationship with Jill.
Though Abe clearly has his own story here, the more interesting heart of the movie is how he operates in the stories of the movie's women--two middle-class heroines yearning to break free from the bonds of everyday life from different ends of the spectrum of time. As Jill and Rita unravel the mystery and figure out that Abe did murder the judge, his involvement with each is complicated. Now, their allegiance to the archetype of the dark, brooding Romantic figure is put to the test, and we see how greatly reality differs from the fantasy.
In the end then "Irrational Man" is a movie about confronting Romantic fantasies. Is Jill really as edgy and morally sophisticated as she wants to be, or is she, in fact, more comfortable living a life of prescribed middle-class convention? Does Rita really have what it takes to realize her dream of escape to Spain when the opportunity to present itself? Though Rita seems more willing to embrace the fantasy from her side of middle age, her struggle to end things with her husband in a brief scene toward the end of the movie argues that this may, in fact, be harder than she thought.
But the movie is much more concerned with Jill's conflict, as it entangles with the plot to the point where her negotiation with idealism becomes a literal fight for her life. When she reveals that she will turn Abe in if he doesn't confess, he attempts to throw her down an elevator shaft in plot twist that seems at once ridiculous and yet completely justified.
The physical struggle between Abe and Jill that ends the movie plays out the conflict between Romantic ideal and troubling reality. It's fitting that during this struggle, Jill is saved by the fact that Abe stumbles on the flashlight he won for her at a carnival game. The symbol of conventional, boring middle-class, small "r" romantic posturing becomes his ultimate undoing.
Well acted with a subtle and understated humor, "Irrational Man" deftly explores what happens when fantasies become reality. We may yearn for escape, the movie suggests, but when push comes to shove and fantasy becomes reality, we can't help but cling to the comforts of our cages.
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