Saturday, August 2, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight (**)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


Here's an interesting statistic: there hasn't been a single year in my life in which Woody Allen hasn't released a new film. His institution is well known, but for me personally, the arrival of each new film is very comforting. The fact that his tastes and styles and themes have more or less cemented themselves into a stasis actually helps his relevance as a filmmaker; while the rest of the world evolves and cinema itself breaks more ground, Woody's films stay essentially the same. Watching the same Windsor font of the type face as the opening credits appear, the main actors always presented alphabetically - there's no such thing as "billing" with him - you're put inside a time capsule. You could have easily seen Magic in the Moonlight in 1987 or 1999, because Woody doesn't budge for the swaying tides of culture. This is why every Woody Allen film, for me at least, is worth watching. Because you're reminded of every delightful detail and all the fond memories. Even when the film you're watching isn't very memorable. And while you can call Magic in the Moonlight many things, I'm not sure memorable would crack the list.

This is one of his few films without an obvious Woody surrogate, though Magic's protagonist, a staunch, arrogant elitist named Stanley (Colin Firth), is certainly as neurotic as any character that's taken shape in his canon. Stanley is an illusionist by trade, famous under his stage persona Wei Ling Soo, posing as a Chinese magician because, well, I guess he sells more tickets that way. He does all the usual tricks - sawing a pretty woman in half, relocating from one side of the room to the other as if out of thin air - but does it with an eye for performance and is generally considered amongst the best and most renowned illusionists in the world. But Stanley has a second profession, one he doesn't get paid for but seems to enjoy even more: he spends much effort going out of his way to debunk the belief in spiritual forces and religious power. His view of the world is strictly rational and pessimistic. He does not see any possibility of magic in the universe. When a fellow magician named Berken (Simon McBurney) alerts Stanley to the existence of a young woman who can speak to spirits, he asks Stanley to prove the woman is a fraud. Stanley agrees with a tickled smile, he enjoys crushing the hope of magic with the dull thud of reality.

Stanley travels to the South of France where he meets Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a very young and very beautiful woman who has enchanted a rich American family who believes Sophie can contact their dead patriarch. Berken introduces Stanley to the family, which includes the mother, Grace (Jacki Weaver), who is ready for for a seance in which they plan to contact her deceased husband, and the son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), who has fallen completely in love with Sophie's beauty. The sister, Caroline (Erica Leerhsen), is less convinced and hopes Stanley will unmask Sophie before she marries Brice and becomes attached to the family's enormous fortune. At last, Stanley encounters Sophie, who almost immediately shows off her psychic gifts and drops a few facts about Stanley as if out of thin air. But Stanley is left unimpressed and sees it fit to make quick work of this obvious impostor. During the seance later that day, Sophie appears to summon the spirit Grace's husband into the room, and is eventually able to make a candle levitate from the middle of the table. Berken grabs the candle to see what is suspending it, but finds nothing but air.

Sophie's apparent powers threaten to shake the foundation of everything Stanley believes in, which makes him more and more determined to prove she's a fake. But the more time he spends with the charming young woman, the more baffled he becomes at trying to figure her out. He takes her to visit his aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), his closest relative, and when Sophie begins espousing details about her romantic past, Stanley seems at his wit's end. Stanley's stubborn views on the structures of reality and his complete dismissal of religious spirituality have been cornerstones of his existence, and in many ways have been a boon to his professional career: he can master the art of being a magician because of his complete understanding that it is an illusion. As Stanley's fascination with Sophie grows, her romantic interest in him begins to bud, bringing an unseen complication that is quite common in a lot of Woody Allen films. At it's heart, Magic in the Moonlight is a film supporting the belief that the existence of spirituality helps humanity cope even if it is a complete fallacy. It's something that Woody has tackled many times before (Do something - ANYTHING - to distract you from the fact that one day you are going TO DIE), though he's done it in much better ways. That he felt the need to shoehorn a romance into Magic is the film's greatest disappointment.

It's not just that Colin Firth (at 53) is more than twice the age of Emma Stone (at 25) - I've long succumbed to the Hollywood tradition of ageism involving gender politics in romantic films; I don't agree with it, but I can at least buy it if it's done well. But it's laughable to think that a sweet, sparky personality like Sophie Baker ("She's quite likable, even if she is a fraud," Aunt Vanessa admits to Stanley upon meeting her) would fall for the pedantic Stanley. I wouldn't exactly say that Firth is particularly good here, but he is incredibly committed and that means that he plays this curmudgeon to the very peak of curmudgeon-ness. This leaves very little room for any functioning reality in which Sophie would fall for him. This script is a bit of a house of cards, and overall Woody is usually more interested in the charming, character-oriented, set-up-and-payoff aspects of screenwriting than the nuts and bolts of plot. But there are things (which I won't spoil here) in Magic that simply don't make sense, and Sophie's infatuation with Stanley is right at the top of the list. Woody has always endorsed letting passion rule decisions, at least that's how he always has his characters make up their minds, but this one here is too hard to get behind.

After all the promise that Emma Stone showed from 2007-2011, she followed it up with three years of roles that were more or less empty calories (though you can't blame her for getting sucked up into the black hole that is the Amazing Spider-Man franchise). Not only was she not that interesting, but she seemed bored by it all. Magic in the Moonlight doesn't give her much more, but it allows her to be beautiful which is more than most of her films let her do. Stone may have the best eyes of any working actress in America right now, and Woody showcases them wonderfully. Her upcoming projects, including Alejandro Inarritu's Birdman later this year, as well as a project with Cameron Crowe and another with Woody Allen, may finally show whether or not she is someone who is going to stick around for a long time or not. I'll admit that I'm rooting for her, and found that her presence (not necessarily her performance, which was fine but, like a lot of the film, very lightweight) was what kept me form truly disliking Magic in the Moonlight. The silver lining behind watching one of Woody Allen's less-than-stellar efforts? You can always depend on him giving it another shot next year.

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