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‘Irrational Man’ proves beliefs can be funny things

“Irrational Man” (2015). Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg, Tom Kemp, Robert Petkoff, Kate McGonigle, Susan Pourfar, Paula Plum, Nancy Giles. Director: Woody Allen. Screenplay: Woody Allen. Web site. Trailer.

Have you ever heard someone utter something that seems totally inappropriate or ludicrous, only to find out that the statement in question is one the speaker’s most cherished beliefs? Hard to fathom, isn’t it? Yet such instances are commonplace, since beliefs are highly personal, heartfelt sentiments, notions that everyone holds onto zealously (and that are generally unshakable except under the most coercive circumstances). That seemingly strange though routine proposition gets put under the microscope in the latest offering from director Woody Allen, “Irrational Man.”

The ivy-clad halls of Newport, Rhode Island’s stoic Braylin College are about to get shaken up (or at least that’s what administrators think). Renowned philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) has agreed to join the school’s faculty as a visiting instructor for the summer program. His arrival is heralded as a major coup for the university, given his pedigree as one of the field’s most insightful academics. But his standing precedes him in other ways, too; the handsome young scholar has earned quite a reputation as a ladies’ man.

But, when Abe arrives, many of the foregoing expectations are shattered. He routinely seems moody, withdrawn and despondent, merely going through the motions of his new assignment and frequently reaching for the flask he carries in his back pocket. Moreover, in conversations with peers, it becomes obvious his field of study no longer holds much interest for him. In fact, despite his extensive knowledge of the subject matter, he has generally come to view his discipline as oh so much intellectual masturbation.

Needless to say, Braylin’s faculty is disappointed with the attitude of their new colleague. The same can be said of those who carry an erotic torch for him, most notably married but philandering science instructor Rita Richards (Parker Posey) and doe-eyed undergraduate student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone). Abe’s inability to “perform” frustrates them. But, then, such feelings of inadequacy don’t do much to lift his own spirits, either, especially since they permeate all areas of his life, from his amorous escapades to his ability to write to his classroom experience.

However, Abe’s circumstances take an unexpected turn when he overhears a troubling conversation in a diner. In the course of his eavesdropping, he learns of a disturbing injustice that he believes must be rectified. And, in a moment of supposed clarity, he feels compelled to take matters into his own hands, despite not personally knowing any of the parties involved. By taking action, Abe sincerely believes his life will have purpose once again. He thus proceeds to work on a plan to address the situation, one that’s a real killer – literally.

Upon making this decision, Abe’s life changes in an instant. He suddenly seems more upbeat and empowered, taking charge of his existence. Others benefit from this renewed spark, too, most notably Rita and Jill. But, before long, cracks begin to appear in Abe’s plan. His scheme proves to be anything but the panacea he initially thought it to be. His onetime clarity starts to turn murky, especially when consequences begin to boomerang on him. Abe quickly finds himself in over his head – and sinking deeper with every passing moment. Given what’s transpiring around him, one has to wonder whether he’ll be able to work everything out.

As anyone who has ever studied philosophy knows, there are many different ways of looking at the world. Questions involving metaphysics, morality, ethics and a host of other considerations all come up for scrutiny and take a variety of forms, depending on the lens through which they’re observed. The particular views that we most enthusiastically adopt invariably form the basis of our beliefs. And, as practitioners of conscious creation know, those beliefs, in turn, come to characterize our prevailing worldview and the nature of the reality we experience.

In light of the foregoing, it’s important that we consider those views carefully, for they’ll certainly become reflected in the existence around us. No matter what form our beliefs may take, they’ll inevitably be faithfully represented in our external world, warts and all. And so, to attain outcomes we’re pleased with, we should be sure to take several important steps, such as make use of our power of discernment, understand the responsibility associated with our creations and take time to assess the consequences that arise in connection with them.

These considerations are particularly crucial for someone like Abe. As someone who has come to believe that the philosophical doctrines he once so eagerly embraced no longer work, he’s ripe for something to fill the gaping and vacuous metaphysical void that has opened up inside him. However, while seeking a worthy replacement under such circumstances is arguably a noble pursuit, he must be careful in what he chooses as the basis of his new personal paradigm. In the absence of any prevailing philosophical worldview, crucial elements like those noted above may be missing, too, which could seriously skew the selection process for implementing a new foundational compass.

Given that Abe has found that ideas and intents don’t seem to work for him, he chooses to pursue a radically different alternative – taking action. He believes that the lack of results that comes from merely musing about matters can be effectively overcome by proactively engaging in specific physical acts. He also believes that actions designed to address moral issues and to right wrongs are particularly noteworthy, for they give meaning to their execution.

But do they really? Is such alleged altruism truly enough of a justification for said behavior, especially if it carries moral consequences with it? Abe would seem to think so, because those are the beliefs he now sincerely holds and subsequently uses to create his reality. But are such beliefs the wisest course to follow? While the conscious creation process maintains that all probabilities are fair game for manifestation, does that mean they all should be pursued?

Because Abe has grown disenchanted with the emptiness associated with philosophical rumination, the exhilaration he experiences through the fulfillment of a tangible physical act probably seems quite seductive, especially given the profound dissatisfaction he has endured in his life for so long. Taking action makes him feel alive and vital, a reaction one might even argue results from the inherent density and potency of experiencing existence in physical form.

But has Abe considered the ramifications of those actions? Given how events unfold, it would seem not. This is where the importance of beliefs comes back into play, for even though Abe’s existential actions seem to operate independently of any kind of metaphysical consideration, they still have their origins in the beliefs that gave birth to them, even if unrecognized. If those beliefs are given free rein, without any deliberation of the implications, problems can arise, especially if their embedded consequences end up materializing. And, even if those beliefs are dressed up with moral trimmings, the other elements nevertheless tag along for the ride – and may make their presence felt as full-fledged physical manifestations.

Is this something that Abe (or any of us for that matter) really wants? Only he can answer that for himself. But, if he fails to consider the upshot of his actions (and their underlying beliefs), he seriously runs the risk of practicing un-conscious creation, a pursuit that can carry significant costs. All of which goes to show, as noted at the outset, that beliefs, if left unchecked, can truly be funny things.

The role of consequences in all this is important for another reason: It draws attention to the connectedness of all of the elements that make up existence. No matter how much we might like to compartmentalize the various aspects of our lives and realities, everything is nevertheless linked, and the connections that bind everything to everything else – no matter how seemingly insignificant – are all undeniably present, as Abe comes to discover in the course of his exploits. Even the most ostensibly trivial components and synchronicities of our lives can have surprisingly immense impact. So, because of this, we should carefully assess what arises in our realities lest we suffer the fallout of our inattentiveness.

“Irrational Man” is by no means one of Woody Allen’s best efforts, but neither is it the unmitigated mess that many have made it out to be. In fact, as one of my friends astutely observed, even a bad Woody Allen movie is better than most of the other releases that come out these days. The film admittedly has some pacing issues in the first 30 rather talky, sometimes-repetitive minutes, but it definitely gets better as it goes along. It’s also heartening to see a picture that’s freely unafraid to address the kinds of meaty subjects discussed here. Indeed, how many current films can you name that openly and unabashedly examine philosophical questions? While it’s true there may be some overkill in this regard, I’d rather see a picture that touches on material like this than the mindless pap so many contemporary films do.

Many of the themes present in “Irrational Man” recall those probed in some of the director’s previous works, such as “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993) and “Match Point” (2005). The narrative also borrows heavily from the plot of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But a number of elements are refreshingly different, too, such as its setting, with its many beautiful location shots, and its lively soundtrack, which prominently features the music of Ramsey Lewis.

Perhaps my biggest issue with this production, however, has nothing to do with the film itself. Once again, as has been the case with an increasing number of pictures in recent years, the movie has been saddled with a misleading trailer. The preview tends to portray the film as a light, bouncy comedy involving the romantic romps of a troubled university professor who inexplicably manages to turn his life around. It gives virtually no indication of its more serious, darker side. In fact, nearly all of the laughs in the entire movie appear in the trailer itself. This is not meant to disparage the picture or the filmmaker by any means. However, it once more raises what is, in my opinion, a growing issue in the movie business that, if left unaddressed, may well come back to haunt the industry at some point.

The next time you get a wild, enticing thought, take some time to take a look at it before acting on it. Delaying the implementation of a rash notion could spare you and yours ample grief and embarrassment. And, if that’s not incentive enough, consider the experience of Abe Lucas. That may be just what it takes to keep you from becoming irrational in your own right.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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