Curse of the Jaded Filmmaker: Magic in the Moonlight

07/23/2014 4:00 AM |

Magic in the Moonlight
Directed by Woody Allen

We shouldn’t make anything of how Woody Allen, now 78, has begun to incorporate mythical elements into his films. If it was anyone else we could speculate that he or she was becoming more spiritual with age, but Woody remains cinema’s most devout atheist and visible misanthrope, and incorporating for him does not mean embracing. Fantasies of clairvoyance (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), spirits (Scoop, To Rome With Love) and time travel (Midnight in Paris) all were summarily dismissed, ignored or eschewed. His characters have their cake, but they never get to eat it.

Magic in the Moonlight is the fullest expression of this theme, Allen’s most explicit battle between mopey realists and dreaming fools since The Purple Rose of Cairo (another film that ends with a defeat for fantasy). When a character muses, “the only supernatural being who exists wears a black robe,” it’s the ultimate distillation of a career-spanning philosophy.

The film follows Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), magician and noted debunker of spiritualists, who is hired to expose the fraud of supposed psychic medium Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). But as evidence mounts that Sophie may be the real deal, Stanley becomes rapturously converted, liberated by the idea that if magic can exist, then maybe life isn’t a meaningless hurtle towards death after all.

This is more interesting as theory than drama (or comedy), especially since Magic sees no middle ground on the scale from happy/deluded to miserable/rational. Allen’s ear for dialogue remains strong, but he seems to be aping the sophisticated drawing room comedies of his 1920s setting, where the pleasure comes more from rhythm than traditional punchlines (the film’s big example of that, a smash cut involving a broken motor car, hardly lands). It’s hard to imagine any Allen newbies becoming converts.

But as usual, Allen offers basic pleasures. The cinematography is gorgeous, luxuriating in the sunlight and beauty of the south of France (there are more trees here than any Allen film since A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), and the production makes clear, as the Bullets Over Broadway musical does, that the 1920s were the sexiest and most stylish decade in history.

The performances are a bit flat, since Firth and Stone represent philosophies more than characters, though Firth fares better with the overt stylization of the script. One wishes Allen had pushed deeper into his material, creating a clearly meaningless world, one where Sophie better stands out as a beacon of contentment (the film begins in Weimar-era Berlin, which might have been a more fruitful place to stay). Stanley is so unhappy in his life of leisure that he’s dull and stagnant, more grouch than realist. Just because the universe is expanding, that’s no reason to not do your homework.

Opens July 25