Woody Allen’s new film, The Irrational Man, gives us a troubled philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), in an existential crisis. Although Abe is an expert in Existentialism, he can’t live its system of belief. He’d have to find meaning in his life and live it to its fullest, in spite of its limits (or his past). Abe can’t. He lives in despair, and this despair leads him to an irrational act. Yet, the clues to why he does what he does are lost in an imbalanced amount of philosophizing. The character of Abe Lucas could have used a script therapist.
Abe’s Very Irrational Act
Abe’s irrational act is a well-researched, pre-meditated murder. To Abe, this murder makes complete sense. It justifies his existence. He comes alive. He’s no longer in despair. Yet, why? How does murdering this man, a man he believes to be vermin, send him into a manic high? As a psychologist and script consultant, there are particular things I’d highlight in Abe’s history to make what I understand as a professional much clearer to an audience.
Here’s what we know about Abe Lucas: he arrives at Braylin College in Newport, Rhode Island, to teach a summer class on ethics. A reputation as a player proceeds him. He’s even had affairs with students. The campus is abuzz and excited he’s there. He could care less. He cares more about his flask of whiskey. This teaching gig is about as thrilling as giving food to starving families in Darfur only to end up with meningitis. He expects nothing better. He’s filled with negativity.
What His Past Has To Do With It
Here are the rumors about Abe’s past: he lost his best friend whose head was blown off in Iraq. Or, he became depressed when his wife ran off with his best friend. His mother committed suicide by drinking bleach when he was only 10.
We’re left without a clue why his mother was so depressed or who took care of him after. These important details get lost in the more dominant philosophical musings of the film. This is unfortunate since Woody Allen is fully capable of character study. Take Gena Rowland’s Marion, in Another Woman.
Abe’s irrational act is set in motion when he overhears a distraught mother of two telling her friends that a judge sided with her vindictive ex-husband against her in family court. She could lose her kids. This enrages Abe. He decides to take justice into his own hands. He’ll singlehandedly help this mom by killing the corrupt judge. As Abe tells his students: “There’s a big difference between the theoretical world of philosophy and real life. In real life, there is greed, hate, and genocide.” This woman’s story stirs Abe’s hate full force.
It’s Not Existential Freedom Of Choice
Suddenly his life has a purpose in a bizarre and perverse twist on the existentialist credo of freedom of choice. He’s no longer a passive intellectual. He acts. Yet, existential freedom is meant to be taking action within the scope of your own life, not choosing someone else’s fate. But, Abe has no qualms about taking the Judge’s life. Abe’s justification: he’s rotten and should be stamped out. Some people don’t deserve to live.
Who is this man to Abe? His father perhaps, abusive or abandoning, who also “crushed a woman and her kids just because he has the power to do it?” A rotten best friend who stole his wife? Who is he saving? His mother? Himself as a child who lost his mom?
If I were the Script Therapist for The Irrational Man, I would want to flesh these details out – details that help us understand why this mother and her children lead Abe to murder. And subsequently, have no qualms about also trying to kill Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), his brilliant student and lover.
If it’s true that Abe Lucas lost his mom at age 10 to suicide, that’s a serious trauma for a child. It can cast a pall of despair and internalized anger, even guilt at not being enough to save her, over an entire life. If this is so, Abe’s actions could make sense and any guilt he might carry seemingly vindicated in his fantasy of justice.
What I’d Do As Script Therapist For Abe
As a Script Therapist, my main suggestion would be to make Abe’s personal history (and early trauma) carry just as much weight in the film as Woody Allen’s brilliant choice of philosophical quotes. The historical clues we have are too subtle and unfortunately posed primarily as rumors, leaving us to either lose them or not take them seriously. Hatred has its roots in real life, as Abe aptly says, and the roots of his hatred might have been quite believable.
What about trying to kill Jill Pollard, though? Sartre’s quote from his play, No Exit, “Hell is other people” might be the reason. Sartre meant that people act as mirrors for what we don’t want to see. Jill’s morality becomes a harsh conscience for Abe. She sees what he’s done. But, there’s only judgment, not understanding of the roots of his despair, anger, guilt, and hatred. She becomes a hell he can’t escape except by getting rid of her.
Abe doesn’t have the help of therapy (a kind and non-judgmental mirror), to work through his likely traumatic past. With feelings he can’t bear that have created deep despair – Abe finds no other option but to act out his hatred. With therapy, he’d have help to work out, in his mind instead, the tormenting feelings and obstacles that block him from being fully alive.
The character of Abe Lucas fell short, for the reasons I’ve elaborated, of what in my opinion is one of Woody Allen’s most interesting and brilliant recent films. If he’d had a Script Therapist to help, The Irrational Man could have been truly great.