An oncoming train will kill five people; if you switch the track, only one person will die. As the engineer of the train, what should you do? You could appeal to utilitarian ethics, but what if the single person is a genius who saves millions of lives? You could act with your gut, but isn’t that arbitrary? Woody Allen’s new and ironically titled Irrational Man tells you that any overarching philosophy that is applied to this kind of thought experiment is “bullshit” and “verbal masturbation.”
Allen’s 45th film doesn’t stray far from his familiar formula (a romance with a substantial age gap, numerous intellectual asides, and a character facing an existential crisis) but it’s a welcome return to form after last year’s fiasco, Magic in the Moonlight.
Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a philosophy professor who can’t find meaning and purpose in his romantic affairs, whether with a sexy student (Emma Stone) or another professor’s wife. After eavesdropping on a conversation about a corrupt judge, Abe decides to kill the man he’s never met to rid the world of corruption and aid his unshakable melancholy. Since the judge was not married and caused more harm than good, Abe justifies his action from a utilitarian perspective, a philosophical idea Allen thinks has no business influencing a real-life decision.
Judged solely on a pain to pleasure ratio, Irrational Man is a delight bolstered by wonderful performances and an entertaining plot. Allen’s work has clearly been influenced by Hollywood’s golden age–from the small detail like the classic font in the opening credits to the more overt choices like the mysterious but catchy jazz score. If this were shot in black and white with atmospheric chiaroscuro lighting, the plot in Irrational Man could match up with noirs from the 50s, but filtered through Allen’s distinct sensibility, this is a playful and even exciting comedy.
Although this marks the first time that Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Allen have worked together, the film’s scene-stealing performance comes from Emma Stone. Allen’s dialogue, which can sometimes be a mouthful, is projected with notable grace and timing. Her bright eyes ogle Abe with fantasies, not love. Allen’s movies have a tendency to over-explain the character sentiments instead of characterizing them implicitly, but Phoenix and Stone have no problems selling these feelings.
Many filmmakers quote and allude to great Western philosophers as a pretention, but Irrational Man directly engages with their ideas. Allusions are not just a flourish but part of a tightly knit whole that pays equal attention to Allen’s anti-philosophy philosophy. Because the plot and theme are so tightly conjoined, we never feel as though one is a departure for the other. Irrational Man is a film that is entertaining because of its ethos, not in spite of it.
If you were ever confused by your eccentric professor’s lecture on Kant’s categorical imperative, Irrational Man explains it in an unforgettably layered sequence that is foreshadowing, a comical lampooning of Kant’s ethical model and an expression of Allen’s view that philosophical ethics can’t solve moral quandaries like a math equation. Similar to the inside and outside of a human body, the genre elements and humor fit masterfully with his themes and messages.
Allen thinks that the field called “the love of wisdom” is idiotic. Ethics in life aren’t as simple as some equation: kill five or kill one. Life has messy relationships, unknown consequences, but, most notably, rolling flashlights. Practicality may have killed the philosophy professor, but from a utilitarian perspective, Woody Allen’s Irrational Man is a moral obligation that is considerably more pleasurable than painful. And there is nothing irrational about that!