The Ethnographer of Fantasy (on Woody Allen’s Irrational Man)

The middle-aged philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) pulls up to a liberal arts college in Newport in an old Volvo, liberally helping himself to the content of his stainless steel hip flask containing vintage single malt. The young students move along a mock-US version of already mock-Tudor English castle-like university buildings, peering out of quaint leaded glass windows and bouncing, in the fashion of deer, through the vaulted arches and prim lawns, only marginally weighed down by their textbooks in continental philosophy. The faculty move in a more sedate fashion, but the ripple of excitement is there as well. The new arrival is preceded by his reputation as a Romantic alpha-male, promising to bring an injection of Viagra to campus. And the middle-aged women with dreams of Andalusian sunsets with some Hemingway incarnation, and a final escape from husbands who have merged into their easy chairs, gather around.

There is a general promise of licentious behaviour unleashed by the stranger-coming-to-town story. The professor is also known to sleep with students. These young women pine to get away from the dullness of inexperience on offer by their contemporaries of the other sex. Here is someone who has travelled the world, can speak about Kant, cite Emily Dickinson and who carries a big darkness in his heart that makes him in equal measures the image of worldly masculinity and puppy-like abandonment. The professor, on the other hand, is quite aware of having lost his mojo, whatever it was. He is an impotent washed-out alcoholic and his Weltschmerz has, by now, become pure cliché, almost obstructing the fact that it never was anything else.

The audience need not worry about missing any piece of this narrative mise-en-scène; Woody Allen makes use of pedagogical voice-overs and overly didactic dialogues to bring everyone on board. This is not the moment when we need to think. Thankfully, it will all get (a little) more complicated. The plodding artlessness remains, also in the cinematography with its accentuated predictability, but the plot eventually takes on twists to jolt the film from the mundane. This takes time, something that curiously works to make so much artlessness into an art itself, an art evoking no little degree of pleasure. First Allen needs to set up the implausible intertwining of two narrative strands, in themselves Allenesque hobbyhorses: the romance between the older man and the younger woman and the perfect murder. When these two are finally brought out to cancel each other the bubble of the clichés bursts, an event containing the largest enjoyment of them all.


Emma Stone plays the role of the inexperienced college girl Jill with painful accuracy. However, Joaquin Phoenix struggles more with his persona tortured between Kant and Dostoyevsky. His potbelly is his most convincing character trait, and Phoenix walks as though he is guided by it, developing a gait shaped by poorly digested Romanticism. But for the most part he is searching for a way to make his professor credible. Stone, on the other hand, skilfully brings out absolute banality. For Phoenix’s character the question is allowed to linger: can someone really be so wildly hackneyed? The minimal mimetic requirements of this kind of drama, which really makes very few claims for realism, are not even reached. A comic actor would have succeeded better, someone who like Owen Wilson can raise male vacuity to levels superseding one’s expectations. Phoenix is too serious in a situation when only wackiness could have saved the false gravitas.


The problems of the role of professor Lucas are also accentuated by Allen refraining to take the more overt pot shots against pseudo-intellectualism that are so present in the early part of his oeuvre. Here we are offered a smorgasbord of innate pretensions that would have brought the young Allen to a foaming rage. But now he evidently has other concerns. This is all somewhat difficult to comprehend, like Hemingway going to the corrida to solve a crossword puzzle missing out on all that afternoon death. Granted, it is an entertaining crossword puzzle, but still.

Irrational Man is a good example of how Allen in this later stage of his career has focused on showing his skills as an ethnographer of fantasy. This has often concerned a fantasy of space, notably cities as in his films from London, Barcelona, Paris and Rome constituting what can be named the “tourist cycle.” There is little attempt to let Newport play such a part here, instead it is the fantasy of the generic New England liberal arts college that is mercilessly spread in an etherized state across Allen’s table. A setting epitomized by receptions in the types of rooms that Edith Wharton had already satirized close to a century ago, now with the added insult to injury that the protagonists all clutch pint-sized plastic tumblers. But the main fantasy is not even this place, but the one of the stranger in town, the Romantic man and the perfect crime, fantasies that are brought together to undo each other.

In making films ostensibly about the audiences’ most gaudy expectations about reality Allen is with a Zen-like precision approaching the pure art of a picturesque cinema that wishes to look like our cinematic imagination of the world while not hiding that it is this that it is doing. It is thus doubly mediated, and, in contrast to the Hollywood mainstream, self-conscious. But it is, of course, not all scenography. When they work best the plots are performative of a point that links to the fantasy, like the recursivity in Midnight in Paris (2011) connecting to the idea of the city as a pamplisest. Also Irrational Man functions in this manner, to great effects despite its reliance on didacticism. Allen mines philosophical, literary and moral rumination and threads these strands back into the plot; clichés meet clichés. This is probably also the most likely explanation why he resists taking the expected swipes against pseudo-intellectualism: This attack has become mediated and part of a more complex representation of a picture than when Allen was appearing in his own works. Ironically, this makes it at times a bit too clever and therefore flat, but it remains engaging all the same, especially by its finale.

By Axel Andersson. Published in Film International, 5 October 2015

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