Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight (2014) Review

Directed by
Woody Allen

Magic in the Moonlight is Woody Allen’s 44th film, and one of his most disappointing.  The disappointment comes not as a result of high hopes built around a project starring Colin Firth, Emma Stone and a poster looking like this – a poster so corny and formulaic that it makes Rochelle,Rochelle look like a plausible third installment to Nymphomaniac.  The disappointment is not because of the evocative title either, although with a name like Magic in the Moonlight, it’s hard not to envision talking dolphins or kid wizards or something like that.

The disappointment principally derives from the fact that Woody’s 43rd film, Blue Jasmine, was one of his best (at least since Match Point) and even his recent acting turn in John Turturro’s underrated Fading Gigolo from last spring was noteworthy.  There was every reason to believe Magic in the Moonlight could have represented Allen’s return to solid and consistent form, even in the event of story material (magicians, moonlight) failing to elicit a lot of discernable excitement.  But it doesn’t.  This is a largely lifeless, dull and surprisingly mechanical foray into Woody’s oft repeated themes (logic vs. superstition; free will vs. fate; learned, logical man over 40 meets clueless and substantially younger girl).  When the story is interesting, it’s the dramatic circumstances rather than the characters or dialogue; when the story is inert, not even a B3 shot can resuscitate the scenario.  At 97 minutes, the movie feels at least 20 minutes longer.

Maybe I’m being too harsh (hold that thought).  The first half of the movie works mostly well.  The story takes place in 1928 Berlin (insert joke here), where we meet the famous illusionist-cum-orientalist stereotype Wei Ling Soo nee Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth).  A magician by day and magician debunker by night, Crawford is not so much a contradiction as he is another perfectly tailored Woody Allen protagonist: as someone who wouldn’t belong to a club with himself as a member, he takes particular delight in exposing rival illusionists as charlatans.  But somehow he also fails to recognize the self-aggrandizing irony in this, the pot literally shouting black at the kettle; Woody Allen in 1984 might have picked up on this, but Woody Allen in 2014 lets the joke fly over his head.  One night, Crawford’s friend informs him of a peculiar case in Province where a cute American innocent abroad (played by Scarlett Johansson Rachel McAdams Emma Stone) has captivated a rich family with her séances, uncanny mind readings and bobbed head pieces.  Crawford makes no hesitation in crossing the border, predictably leaving his Frumpy Fiancée to conveniently exit the screenplay at once.

Once in France, Crawford meets the seductress, Sophie Baker, and the family of rich dolts she entertains on a nightly basis (with copious donations made to Sophie’s “advanced studies of mysticism.”)  Crawford remains mercilessly unconvinced until the mechanical gearshift of the story begins to predictably thrust forward and he finds himself not only smitten with the nubile Sophie,  but (a far grievous sin in Allen’s universe) doubting his own caustic doubts.  Who is Alvy Singer Stanley Crawford if he is not a cynical, self-absorbed skeptic who flaunts his superficial knowledge of Nietzsche and Freud?  As Crawford, Colin Firth certainly possesses less nebbish and more respectability (apparently he is substantive enough in his field to call a press conference in France on a whim).  And Emma Stone as The Girl is less Barbara Stanwyck and much more Daisy Buchanan, even sacrificing the normal function for a Woody Allen female character (the desire to shack up with an older, cynical, attached man) in order to be with a rich, young good-looking guy who promises her yachts and jewelry.  Well, at least she resists this urge for most of the movie.

The problem, unsurprisingly, is one of chemistry – mostly the fact that these two characters have none.  Why would Sophie be attracted to the man whose sole aim in the 97 minutes we see him is to debunk her credibility?  Why would she want to sacrifice her otherworldly talent just to be a subservient agent in Crawford’s quest to debunk, then restore, then debunk again the notion of the supernatural?  Why is she the first one to admit her romantic feelings and upon being rebuffed, remains simply content to accept his proposal when he finds it personally convenient?  The answer isn’t “Because it’s a movie;” the answer is “Because it’s a Woody Allen movie.”  Because women in Woody Allen movies are weak, illogical, vein, intellectually inferior and, precisely like the people Stanley Crawford seeks out, can frequently be exposed as frauds.  Even in Blue Jasmine, the closest Allen has ever come to truly having a female protagonist (because the center of Hannah and Her Sisters wasn’t Hannah but her cheating, sympathetic husband), Cate Blanchett’s titular heroine is shown as first unknowingly ignorant of her husband’s financial duplicity, and then maniacal in her desire to restore her status into the economic elite at the cost of reality. 

But that film worked because although Mia Farrow Jasmine was bat-shit crazy, Allen never really pointed his finger and laughed at her (at least not too much).  We felt something for her.  Magic in the Moonlight isn’t drastically more sexist than his other 43 films, but because of how routine the machinations of the story feel – and especially in light of the child sex abuse charges that will haunt Allen for the remainder of his life – the film’s light feel and silly romance between the 54-year-old Firth and 25-year-old Stone feel very passé.  This isn’t Husbands and Wives, where the undertones in the dialogue may reflect Allen’s own attitudes toward his ex-wife and ex-family; but it is precisely authenticity in Allen that we are desperately searching for, now more than ever.  Even if we cannot exonerate or forgive him for whatever we did, we could at least say he’s being honest.  And no matter whether he is guilty or if through some miracle he is really innocent and Dylan and Ronan, etc. were spoonfed lies through their callous showbiz mother (not too unlike Marcia Gay Harden in this film), honesty and transparency always trump artifice. 

Is it fair to punish Magic in the Moonlight for the (alleged) sins of its creator? No, but that doesn't change how rudimentary an experience it was watching the film.  It doesn't change the fact that the most interesting moments were when Sophie improbably recited facts which only Stanley would know and then witnessing his stunned reaction; in this sense, the movie doesn't contain a great deal more suspense than an episode of Long Island Medium.  The "reveal" is equally disappointing and implausible, and there are only scant laughs littered throughout.  Few people in the world have the unique opportunity to make movies, let alone 90 minutes of uninterrupted time in front of spectators willing to listen, observe and feel.  Woody Allen is one of those people and it is time to feel something from him.  Making movies is not magic or a science but an art which, at one point in the not-too-distant past, he demonstrated the ability to frequently master.

Rating: 2 stars

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