Full disclosure: I really dig Woody Allen movies. Every film critic has certain movies that serve as catnip for their critical facilities—romantic comedies, especially those that take me out of this country (or to New York), have a beautifully curated musical score, reference literature, and whose humor is witty and intelligent tend to make me swoon. Allen’s movies usually to push all those buttons, and even his worst pictures tend to make me at least a little bit happy. I’ll defend his maligned You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger to my dying day, and I even enjoyed Whatever Works, though there’s very little I can do to defend that one. I just had a good time watching it.
Director: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Writer: Woody Allen
Cinematographer: Darius Khondji
Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Shamos, Erica Leerhsen
US Theatrical Release: July 25, 2014
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Magic in the Moonlight, however, broke me. You can just look at the trailer and pretty much know that it would be one of Allen’s “lesser” pictures, since, after all, if you can’t find a single good joke for a two minute trailer, how funny can it really be? Dreadfully unfunny as it turns out, but Moonlight is also strangely dead, as if Allen couldn’t be bothered to write interesting dialogue or shoot his scenes with even the slightest bit of verve. And while I’m not one to examine the wreck of Allen’s life in his films, in the end Magic in the Moonlight turns out to be as creepy as anything I’ve seen in one of his movies, in a way that seems totally Allenesque. And that’s not a good thing.
The film opens with Colin Firth as one of those turn-of-the-last century illusionists who captures the world’s imagination. We see him dressed in “Oriental” garb—silk robes, false balding head and long black ponytail—in his persona as magician Wei Ling Soo. This scene should be fraught with excitement, the recreation of a truly magical moment in stage history, when people could still be enthralled by stage illusion and the mechanical wonders that unfolded in front of them. Whether asking us to believe Wei Ling Soo and his disappearing elephant or giving us a behind-the-scenes look at this wonderful act (of course the real magic lies in the skill and discipline involved), Firth instead looks totally bored. When Allen cuts to Soo’s audience, they appear half-asleep, applauding politely, and Allen literally has to have people say “you’re great” rather than show us that they think he’s great. This lackluster scene is an example what to expect for the next ninety minutes.
Firth’s character is really named Stanley Crawford, master illusionist, and a cranky stand-in for the director (as is always the case with late-career Allen). After the show, he wanders back to his dressing room, berating everyone along the way. Fellow friend and magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) approaches Stanley, imploring him to travel to Cote d’Azur in the south of France to observe one Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) a beautiful young medium. Howard is concerned that Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are ripping off the gullible widow Grace Catledge (Jackie Weaver).
No matter what Allen does in his personal life, he seems to attract great actors and actresses because they know that the Academy loves to shower his movies with Oscars (note last year’s Best Actress winner). Why Marcia Gay Harden and Jackie Weaver agreed to such shallow roles is beyond me, except perhaps for that reason. When Stanley agrees to this proposition and he and Howard head to the French Riviera, we begin to wonder if perhaps Hollywood’s best costume designers might be hoping for some Oscar gold, too—at times Magic in the Moonlight seems to be nothing more than a Jazz Age fashion show.
Stanley arrives in France and immediately meets Sophie and her mother, and pretending to be a businessman, observes Sophie’s work, grousing endlessly about the worthlessness of her art. Over time, and in a way that is totally unconvincing to everyone but the people in the film, Stanley becomes convinced that she is a genuine medium. Slowly, and without his realizing it, he begins to fall in love with the annoyingly younger woman. As the movie goes by this becomes less and less charming—I kept asking myself, why not cast either a younger man or an older woman? Allen could have shaved a decade off Stanley or added one to Sophie to make this a lot less squeamish.
Sophie is also being pursued by the young dope Brice Catledge, Grace’s son (Hamish Linklater, no relation to Boyhood director Richard) and eventually we come to see that this subplot exists only to provide counterbalance to Sophie’s awful choice—she can marry this ukulele-strumming idiot her own age or spend her life with Stanley, a sour misanthrope who could be her father (even as he acts her grandfather). Considering her good looks and what is supposed to be charm (honestly, Stone is not very appealing here, and her personality doesn’t even seem to be of this period, as I kept imagining her in Superbad), one wonders why she’d be interested in either man.
Sadly, Allen wastes many opportunities to make this a deeper, richer film. He could have shown her to be a victim of her mother’s hunger for bare creature comforts (both men are quite well off), placing Magic in the Moonlight in the realm of the works of E.M. Forster or Henry James (I know that’s a stretch), but instead he treats it straightforwardly, assuming we’d all find it thrilling to see Sophie permanently in the grip of Stanley. When Stanely proposes to her later, it is as though Allen is channeling the same beautifully awkward moment in the BBC Pride and Prejudice (famously played by Firth in the role that made him a star). But even there, with a character who is meant to be older (this was de rigueur in Jane Austen’s day) the age gap was smaller, though it didn’t need to be. Here, it’s awkward, and, at the end, ultimately sad and disconcerting.
Despite the gorgeous cinematography, which captures the French Riviera beautifully, every scene in this movie has all the grace and charm of lower budget BBC costume dramas (not Pride and Prejudice, which is legitimately great). That is, it feels as though the actors are just reading their lines, trudging through this production, eager to get their paycheck. Despite Allen’s many false steps in the past few years—and there’s a quite a few—at least his actors sparkled and much of the humor was biting and at the very least timed well. Magic in the Moonlight has the look and feel of a Clint Eastwood directed movie—compose your shot quickly, shoot and move on, and who cares if it’s exciting or not. Every scene—and I mean every one in my memory—is blandly composed, edited, and acted.
Allen’s movies typically examine the larger questions of life—is there an afterlife, how do we endure this world of suffering, etc. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was a funny, and ultimately a chilling (and brilliant in my mind) examination of the benefits and fallacies of faith. Magic in the Moonlight examines faith through the stories of Stanley and Sophie, and it’s as shallow and clumsy as a freshman term paper written off the Cliff Notes to a Camus novel.
There is probably no more polarizing cinematic figure than Woody Allen, and this was sort-of true even before his weird love life came to the fore. But even in the 1980s, when he was still being lionized, people often loved or hated the man, and his fans would debate amongst themselves which of his movies were great and which were not great, but still very, very good. No more. I’m not going to tread into the quicksand of judgment regarding the man who is Woody Allen, but I will say that this review is aimed squarely at those of us who continue to like his movies (those who don’t wouldn’t see this one if I gave it five stars and ten thousand words of praise): avoid this one. In a summer full of explosions and CGI, Allen’s work usually serves as a delightful tonic even when they fall somewhat short. But Magic in the Moonlight is depressing and tedious, a great director spinning his wheels with some great actors killing time and wasting ours.