Movie a Day Blog knows that it is not fashionable to admire Woody Allen. His stepdaughter’s allegations of sexual abuse have a plausibility that Allen’s courtship and marriage to his own stepdaughter helped create. The problem of separating artist from art would be more acute if Allen were making very good movies, work at all comparable to his salad days in the 1970s and 80s, and only occasionally since then.
As long as they’re like MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014, Netflix), there’s no difficulty dismissing Allen cinematically as well as morally. Would that it were not so, since Allen is a paragon in American filmmaking: he has directed 50 films, only a few of them short segments, and has enjoyed almost unparalleled control of his creative process, from secret script to final cut, and the power to junk what he doesn’t like and re-shoot it. Actors line up to work with him — or they used to; given his uncertain reputation, it may no longer be a status symbol to be asked to appear in a Woody Allen movie.
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT displays the central weaknesses that have afflicted Allen’s recent work, with the notable exceptions of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) and BLUE JASMINE (2013). MAGIC isn’t as bad as TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012), but it represents another entry in the largely undistinguished run of lackluster comedy-dramas Allen has made since MATCH POINT (2005), and there wasn’t much good in between that film and SWEET AND LOW DOWN (1999).
I was encouraged at first since MAGIC gets off to a robust and engaging start. Colin Firth is well-cast as a cynical magician (using the Orientalism fad of his 1920s era to trick audiences) who loves to debunk psychics and spiritualists, all the rage in that time. He is engaged by a well-meaning friend to expose a young American spiritualist (Emma Stone) and her scheming mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who are preying on a wealthy woman (Jacki Weaver) and her besotted (of Stone) son, a role wasting the talents of Hamish Linklater.
Stone, looking wan and miscast, of course proves irresistible to Firth, who is sure she’s phony until suddenly she’s not. He ends up as flummoxed as everyone else, and he can’t figure out how she does pulls off her supposed communion with the dead. That sounds like the premise for a decent comedy sketch, but stretched out to 97 minutes, with many of Allen’s jokes falling jarringly flat, it seems much, much longer.
Firth, probably the most versatile major male movie star in moving effortlessly between drama and comedy, does his best with a role that is at its heart contradictory: Firth is both a cynic and a sentimentalist; as always, the male protagonist in a Woody Allen movie is playing some variation or another of Woody Allen, and the problem with Allen’s recent work is that the sentimentalist is overwhelming the once sophisticated cynic.
The plotting of MAGIC becomes ever more complicated, and unnecessarily so. Once it’s clear Firth and Stone are in love, Allen has to do everything to break them apart. This may have seemed fresh in MANHATTAN (1979), but it’s tired and familiar by now. Allen, who will be 80 a year from now, simply does not have the form he once possessed. I’m the last person to be ageist, but the list of directors who have done great work into their 80s is a very short one, and currently he is not on my version.
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT isn’t painful to watch; it’s mildly entertaining and as usual with Allen movies, it’s expertly made from a craft standpoint. Allen seems loathe to make films in the United States any more, probably a wise decision considering the protests that might accompany any attempt he would make to shoot on location. He seems content to bounce back and forth between France, Italy and England, making stories about expatriates, whom he increasingly resembles, at least artistically.
I’ve also learned that just as you’re ready to give up on Allen, he’ll come up with a magical realism souffle like MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, in which all the elements click and you walk out of the theater saying, “Now that’s a Woody Allen movie!” The problem Allen faces now is that people walk unhappily out of MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT and say, “Now that’s a Woody Allen movie.” The magic seems gone.