An Iranian Scholar Speaks About Thoreau, at Walden Pond

Irrational Man, like so many of the prolific filmmaker’s works, is a loosely drawn exploration of the desire to do terrible things.

The plot of Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, a moderately dark drama about a malcontent philosophy professor suffering from an excess of first-world problems, hinges on a conversation overheard by Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) and his student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) from a nearby diner booth. A woman, in tears, recounts to friends how a corrupt judge has conspired with her ex-husband to grant him full custody of their child, and describes the anguish she feels as a result. Jill remarks that it sounds like it would be a good thing if the judge got cancer, but Abe, more intent on an active solution to the woman’s woes, decides it would be more practical to simply kill him.

It’s a flimsy premise upon which to base a philosophical exploration of the dark power of rationalization—Abe half-heartedly persuades himself that the murder is justifiable because the judge has no family, and is overstepping his bounds as an arbiter of justice—but it’s also distinctly uncomfortable when you consider that Allen has had his own share of parental disputes decided in a court of law. In 1993, he lost custody of his three adopted children to his former partner, Mia Farrow, and was denied visitation rights to his daughter, Dylan, who had accused him of molesting her. In February last year, a few months before Allen announced Irrational Man was going into production, the case was rehashed after Dylan Farrow published an open letter at The New York Times describing how her father had sexually assaulted her as a child. Given Allen’s rapid pace and prodigious output, it’s possible he was writing the movie during that time, and watching the film, it’s hard to separate Abe’s murderous urges from Allen’s own desires. Throughout his career, Allen’s movies have been elaborate fantasies based on his own specific predilections and neuroses—some glorious, some troubling, but all branded with the unmistakable id of their creator.