In Woody Allen's simple, but compelling, Irrational Man (2015), a nihilistic philosophy professor arrives in a small college town for the purpose of teaching several summer session courses. The teacher, named Abe Lucas, is a mess -- he continuously sips booze from a silver flask, can't finish his book (yet another self-righteous tome on Heidegger and fascism), and, although he effortlessly attracts both undergraduate girls and unhappily married professorial types, is impotent with them. At a party with some of his students, the professor's self-destructive behavior reaches its nadir -- he demonstrates his existentialism by playing Russian Roulette. (One would think that these antics would put a period to Lucas' professional career, but Allen's film is a fable and lapses in narrative plausibility don't concern the director or us.) At a diner, Lucas hears a woman complaining about a corrupt judge who has deprived her of custody of her children and decides that he will murder the man. Inspired by this resolution, Lucas discovers that life's savor has returned -- he is resolute, productive, writes love poems, and recovers his masculine virility. The professor, after helpfully annotating a copy of Crime and Punishment -- Irrational Man's Abe Lucas is a pint-sized Raskolnikov -- murders the judge with poison and congratulates himself on committing the perfect crime. Of course, the scheme comes unraveled and the professor finds himself facing unanticipated consequences of his acte gratuite.
Irrational Man begins with a reference to Immanual Kant and seems to endorse the Prussian philosopher's uncompromising ethics. In his first class, Lucas challenges Kant's categorical prohibition on lying -- he uses the same example that a thousand community college professors have deployed: what if the lie was to protect Anne Frank concealed in your attic from her Nazi persecutors? A student plausibly argues that authorizing some lies will cast us onto a slippery slope -- it will be hard to ascertain which lies are permissible and which are not, and given mankind's well-known propensity toward rationalization, all hell will break loose if we open the floodgates. (I've always admired Kant's ethics and, it seems, that Woody Allen in his old age, may have come to my point-of-view. The better argument in favor of Kant's impractical and dogmatic argument against lying is dramatized by the film: we don't have the capacity to measure all of the consequences of a lie -- a falsehood may be justified in terms of its immediate beneficial consequences but we can't predict the unintended consequences that may subsequently ensue.) Although there is some desultory love-making in the film, Woody Allen's primary interest seems to be in unteasing the implications of Kant's categorical imperative. Lucas has sex with both a student and a married woman, but the sexual transgression is not viewed as a moral problem -- rather, the sexual relationships exist for a very fundamental plot purpose: Abe Lucas is a loner and he needs someone to talk to -- this function is played by his two love interests, the needy and decadent older woman, played by Parker Posey, and the dewy-eyed undergraduate ingénue (Emma Stone). As is often the case with Woody Allen films, autobiography lurks only a little beneath the surface: Allen's characters always have love affairs with women vastly younger than them and, I think, the director was involved in a famously contentious child custody battle with Mia Farrow -- hence there is an element of wish fulfillment in the plot involving the murder of the judge. Irrational Man is a late work as that term is sometimes used in art criticism: the story is schematically developed with absolute clarity -- indeed, Allen uses unnecessary voice-over narrative (Lucas and the undergraduate girl) to make certain that the viewer doesn't miss any information of significance. The film eschews any kind of fancy editing and there are no attempts at pictorial beauty -- each shot is logically constructed and cut for maximum intelligibility. The movie is similar to Bresson except that the French director's minimalism sometimes is foregrounded and has a showy aspect -- all those picture of people's feet in L'Argent, for instance. Allen's work is even more minimalist than Bresson in that he doesn't draw any attention to the extreme economy of means used to propel his- narrative. In late work, an artist uses larger-than-life characters to make his points, tends toward allegory or parable, and eliminates unnecessary complications -- Irrational Man shows all of these characteristics: Lucas' flaws are overt and dramatic, the story is exceedingly schematic, and there are no subplots or unnecessary characters in the film. Considered in these terms, there is a risk that the viewer might find the film cold and abstract. But this risk is avoided by two elements. First, the viewer knows that Woody Allen is quite capable of dramatizing crime that has no consequence or that, indeed, actually enriches the perpetrator -- both Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point involve premeditated murders that are successful, that are unsolved by the police, and that, in fact, serve the best interests of the protagonist. Thus, the viewer has the frisson of knowing that, in Woody Allen's world, crime sometimes pays -- this means that there is a good chance that Abe Lucas will get away with this murder. Second, the film is scored to a pulsating and jaunty jazz score that considerably enlivens the proceedings -- whenever, things seem to get too abstract and airless, the jazz music on the soundtrack saves the day.