In this latest instalment of the Philosophers’ Club we take a look at Woody Allen’s 2015 existential satire – p.s., beware of spoilers!
For a film that received some harsh reviews I’m still going to insist that it’s a good movie. Why? Because it takes a simple philosophical concept and makes it both fun and interesting — and what’s so wrong with that?
We have Abe (Phoenix) a slightly round-bellied, disenchanted but supposedly brilliant philosophy professor. And we have Jill, (Emma Stone) the wide-eyed philosophy undergraduate. When Abe takes a teaching post at Jill’s university, a friendship ensues and one day, during their many talks about his wretched condition, they end up overhearing a conversation about a corrupt judge who’s making one woman’s life hell. Jill’s reaction is to sympathise, but Abe decides to do something about it.
This decision to act becomes his existential, freedom-affirming choice that retrieves him out of the somnolescent stupor that has become his daily life. So what exactly does this great existential act consist in, you ask? Murder. Yep, you heard it right. The forty-something, respected professor of philosophy has rationalised it to himself that murdering the judge is the morally right decision.
A rapid process of hormonal and neural awakening follows, showing Abe busying himself with the project of preparing and executing the murder. All the while, the will he/won’t he scenario keeps us intrigued; after all, he is no Dexter and taking a life is serious business — though suggestively easier than one imagines.
Woody Allen’s latest offering is more fascination than neat entertainment. The story displays a childlike enthusiasm for the darker corners of human rationality. An effortless unfolding of implausible events and blunders gives the script a certain comic playfulness that has become one of the necessary properties of this director (see, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Midnight in Paris). However, here we are treated to a satire of the purely philosophical kind.
Professor Abe Lucas is the stereotypical, washed-out intellectual who spends the larger part of his days deciphering the theories of other intellectuals. The result is a broken marriage and a fondness for taking swigs out of a flask with the seriousness of a disgruntled Persian cat. He displays the classical symptoms of what Existentialism calls anguish or what Jill infers as ‘despair’. Admitting matter-of-factly that he ‘can’t remember the reason for living’, the film gives a simplified formula of basic existentialist thought but without the lengthy terminology.
If you’re not really into continental philosophy, all you need to know here is that Existentialism was a popular twentieth-century philosophical movement that fervently believed in free will; specifically, the individual’s capacity for making choices and taking full responsibility for them in a world where values only appear and acquire moral significance when one authentically chooses something as being ‘my own’. Abe’s decision to murder the judge is nothing but an existential act of free will, whereby he chooses to make the murder his project and so gives it value status together with a moral justification.
As Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the best-known thinkers of Existentialism wrote: ‘Man is condemned to be free’, meaning that we must always choose, one way or the other. To pretend otherwise, to postpone choice-making or convince ourselves that we have no choice, that things are ‘determined’ is to basically sit on the fence. If you do that, you enter what Sartre called ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi) which lets itself be known through the common symptoms of anguish and anxiety.
Before Abe’s existential breakthrough he was depressed and disengaged from life, existing as an ‘other’ and experiencing the world around him as a nauseating abstraction — themes that occur when you practise bad faith. But, the moment he makes a concrete choice he tells us that his ‘dizziness and anxiety had disappeared’.
Irrational Man by its very title already indicates to the audience that what you’re about to see is not something that is socially desirable. Woody Allen takes a once influential philosophical theory and reduces it to absurdity by showing what could happen when theoretics are taken without their pinch of salt. The irony of Abe is not meant to be subtle. In order to embrace life and live authentically he chooses to take a life, but in doing so reimmerses himself back into the world of other free agents, and this means accepting unforeseen consequences that will ultimately impinge on his freedom.
This is perhaps the paradox of existential philosophy. Either suffer bad faith or live authentically, but authenticity means choosing all the time and so being fully responsible for each conscious choice made, whether that ultimately leads to a good or bad outcome for yourself.