Fascinating premise, flat drama: Light comedy and heavy philosophizing go nowhere in Allen’s ‘Magic in the Moonlight’

August 16, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 16, 2014

Author’s note: Having noticed a handful of typos and textual loose ends in this post, I made some adjustments on Aug. 21, 2015. I’ve used boldface (like so) and strikethrough lines (like this) to mark all but the most minor changes. MEM

The newest Woody Allen movie, Magic in the Moonlight, revolves around the question of whether the universe is wholly confined to scientifically observable phenomena or whether there might exist spirit or spirits unseen. The irony is that writer-director Allen, in this movie, has crafted a subtext-free dramatic venture, one limited almost exclusively to superficial appearances and to the literal words and events that it depicts.

Allen’s protagonist is Stanley (Colin Firth), a magician whose brilliance is matched only by his cluelessness in social and emotional realms. When we meet him in 1928, on the eve of the finale of his European tour, he is about to embark on a vacation to the Galapagos Islands with his fiancée.

That all changes when Stanley receives a backstage visitor — Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), a childhood friend and longtime professional rival. Howard has spent the past few weeks at the French estate of the Catledges, a wealthy American family that has been divided by a young medium who purports to be in touch with the family’s deceased patriarch.

Howard has unsuccessfully striven to debunk the psychic as a fraud. When he beseeches his friend, who’s famous for exposing supernatural hoaxes, to lend a hand uncovering the scam, Stanley requires only a modicum of cajoling to get him to scrap his summer vacation. (The fiancée, featured in a single scene, hardly seems bothered that Stanley will be spending the next few weeks apart from her.)

Stanley’s first encounters with the supposed psychic, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), are intriguing. She instantly intuits his stage persona and holds a seance in which, somehow, a candle hovers in midair without any supporting mechanism that the skeptics are able to detect. When Sophie apparently discerns information about a secret lover after, from holding a strand of pearls owned by Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), who also resides in Southern France, Stanley immediately abandons his lifelong commitment to rationalism.

And here the movie takes a turn, from the intriguing to the implausible. Stanley’s instant renunciation of his beliefs is patently unconvincing, and so are most of the next 45 minutes or so that follow. Stanley and Sophie spend a great deal of time together over the subsequent few weeks that follow; he arranges to hold a press conference in which he announces to the world that he has found a talented psychic whose abilities are genuine, thereby holding tremendous implications for philosophy and theology.

Plotwise, all this could theoretically work. Unfortunately, Allen imbues his characters with little more depth than a cardboard cutout, and the amiable, earnest Firth just can’t conjure a truly compelling and lifelike entity out of the material at hand. Stone, who carries a lesser burden in portraying an admittedly uneducated but nevertheless self-possessed ingénue, fares better with her performance; however, her character is far less pivotal to Allen’s artistic ambitions than Firth’s.

So it’s entirely unbelievable that even buttoned-down, emotionally absent Stanley could find himself (a) spending a great deal of time with Sophie and (b) enjoying a carefree existence for perhaps the first time in his life without (c) experiencing even the least bit of physical or romantic attraction to the young woman by his side.

When Sophie admits her interest in Stanley and is coolly rebuffed, much to her distress, Magic in the Moonlight seems to be revealed as a charade — an exercise by Allen in wish-fulfillment that almost, but doesn’t quite, rise to the level of actual art.

Soon after this moment, Allen’s plot takes another turn — a darker one, which imperils the lives of one of the characters, and pushes Stanley to a crisis of faith. A twist follows, one which I didn’t see coming but which many savvy viewers should anticipate. I spent the final 15 minutes of the movie feeling either interested in the on-screen proceedings or frustrated at Stanley’s flimsy characterization. (Sometimes I experienced both emotions simultaneously.) Allen’s final scene is clever, but it feels unearned — just like much of the movie’s second act.

In reviewing Fading Gigolo this spring, I described my ambivalent attitude toward Woody Allen, whose reputation has been badly tarnished by accusations that he assaulted a girl who was, in effect, his stepdaughter. “As I so often do, I prefer to split the difference: Scorn the man, but acknowledge and respect his work,” I wrote then.

But watching Magic in the Moonlight called to mind another sentence from that piece. Referring to Allen, I wrote, “In hindsight, it’s easy to interpret many of his movies as craven self-defenses mounted by a man with a guilty conscience, an enormous ego and a huge sense of entitlement.”

This movie represents the worst of all worlds: Allen sublimates his sublimating lecherous tendencies in an the on-screen romance between a man in his early 50s and a nubile woman half his age that forms the shabby heart of this unconvincing, pretentious drama. (This fall, Firth will turn 54; Stone, 26.) If Allen’s 1992 release, Husbands and Wives, was a fascinating drama that seemed to blame all of the writer-director’s personal problems on his manipulative would-be life partner, actress Mia Farrow, then Magic in the Moonlight is the exact opposite: An unartful failure that implicitly excuses, if not outright endorses, the filmmaker’s most serious flaws.

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