“You suffer from despair,” Emma Stone tells Joaquin Phoenix’s character in the trailer for Woody Allen’s new movie, Irrational Man. “It was at this moment that my life came together,” Phoenix chimes in later via voiceover, “I’m Abe Lucas, I’ve had many experiences and now a unique one … This was the meaningful act I was searching for!” With this exclamation, he seems to have shaken his despair, assumedly the inner conflict that the film will center around. But, unless Woody Allen has had an extreme change of religious conviction, I suspect that Phoenix’s transcendent, unique act won’t lead to a neat resolution.

Despair and the idea of a “search” figure to play a big role in Irrational Man, and these aren’t new themes for Allen or other artists. These are age-old existential dilemmas presented in countless stories. How many books and movies involve protagonists setting off an adventure and finding themselves along the way? It’s clichéd when put in those terms, but this plot structure isn’t at all tired. Woody Allen frequently deals with the “search.”

Remember when his character in Hannah and Her Sisters converts to Catholicism? “I got off to a wrong foot with my own thing, you know, but I need a dramatic change in my life,” he tells his Jewish father. Another work that comes to mind is Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Here, the protagonist embarks on a “search” for meaning during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Percy’s take on despair and the search offers a fresh insight for the existentially anxious.

First, Percy flirts with the idea of despair, especially as defined by Soren Kierkegaard. He leads The Moviegoer with a quote from the Danish philosopher. “The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” Bolling spends much of the novel combatting the “malaise” of everyday life. He slowly becomes aware, through embarking on his search, that he has been in the throes of despair. This discovery is a key to Bolling’s evolution in the book. In the Irrational Man trailer, Emma Stone’s line to Phoenix, “You suffer from despair,” hints at a type of shift, a new awareness for Abe Lucas of his miserable state, and maybe even a ticket out of this despair.

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life,” Binx says. Rotation, repetition, certification, wonder and malaise are the buzzwords that alert him to his successes and failures along the way. Binx treats them as news, like Percy’s castaway in “The Message in the Bottle.” In the epilogue, though, he confesses that he doesn’t feel like he has arrived anywhere yet. “As for my search, I have not the inclination to say much on the subject,” he imparts. This unsure tone is typical Binx, and, dare I say, typical modern man, it’s typical Woody Allen for sure.


Wondering specifically about the existence of God, he concludes, “It is impossible to say.” But his attitude isn’t one of practiced indifference; on the contrary, he has explored the nooks and crannies of the movie theatres, cities, relationships and religions for clues to his existential crisis. When we leave him, he’s still come up empty. Similarly, we leave Phoenix in the trailer without answers. What “meaningful act” was he searching for that gave him some new meaning? I’m going to venture a guess that the full-length film won’t reveal much more in this department.

However, that’s not the end of the story for Percy and Binx. In one episode of Moviegoer, Bolling takes his secretary for a joyride to the coast in his malaise-proof, red MG, hoping for some easy jollies. Things don’t go quite according to plan, but Binx collects some more clues to help him on his search. He and his secretary get to talking about Robert Browning’s poem, “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” an old favorite of Binx’s father. It’s a lengthy one, but a few stanzas can help track it’s general weight: “For thence, – a paradox / Which comforts while it mocks, – / Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail: / what I aspired to be, / And was not, comforts me.” Browning suggests that there is peace and comfort in recognizing our mortality and our inevitable failure to achieve ambitious, youthful dreams.


Thus, the futility of Binx’s search gains new meaning alongside Browning’s poem. The poet equates youth and immaturity with the burning desire to take in everything at once. To complete our searches with one meaningful act, an epiphany to set us on our life course, this is the voice of Browning’s ambitious youth: “Admiring stars, / It yearned ‘Nor Jove, nor Mars; / Mine be some figured flame which blends, transcends them all!’” Having celebrated his thirty-first birthday, Binx has turned a self-appointed corner. He’s feeling family pressures and elects to marry and go to medical school. “What is the purpose of life?” his pesky aunt rails against him. “How did it happen that none of this (wealth, religion, worldly meaning-makers) ever meant anything to you?” Binx has no answer. “Of course there’s a God, you idiot, you don’t believe in God?” Woody’s mom strikes a similar tune in Hannah and Her Sisters when she says of course there’s a God.

Robert Browning asserts that leaving youth for old age is indeed not a sad passing of strength and vigor, but a welcome give and take. “Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure: / What entered into thee, / That was, is, and shall be.” Therefore, reflecting later on a festive Mardi Gras weekend in New Orleans, Binx doesn’t acquiesce to the malaise or sink back into the despair of everydayness. The resolution of his search, in that he admits it is over his head, reveals his wisdom. No longer looking to movies for further evidence, he has ceded his autonomy to something greater. He does not know what, but he might echo the final lines of the poem: “My times be in Thy hand! / Perfect the cup as planned! / Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!”