Seeing but not believing: Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen – 2014)

It is impressive that Woody Allen, at 78, is still able to produce a film a year like clockwork. Although his overriding pessimism may not be everyone’s cup of tea, he is undeniably a great of modern cinema. That a man of his prestige and renowned success still has the desire for new projects shows his devotion to the medium – he already has something up his sleeve for 2015 – but that doesn’t mean that he should feel obliged to do so on an annual basis.

In Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity Jack Black’s character, Barry, laments the musical crimes committed by Stevie Wonder in the 80s and 90s and asks Rob (John Cusack), “Is it better to burn out than to fade away?” I was irritated by last year’s Blue Jasmine but the widely positive critical acclaim that it received showed that many believe Allen still has something to say. Sadly, even his most avid fans will struggle to delight in his newest film, Magic in the Moonlight

Berlin, 1928. The great spectacle of magician and illusionist Wei Ling Soo has its crowd alternately dumbfounded and in raptures. Behind the Chinese get-up, false facial hair and bald cap is Englishman, Stanley (Colin Firth). It is as ridiculous as it sounds but is mildly amusing. Unabashedly caustic, sarcastic and cynical from the outset, Stanley is a self-professed misanthrope who, despite exiting stage left to a standing ovation, does nothing but vehemently bemoan the uselessness of his supporting cast. But this is Colin Firth, surely he’ll redeem himself with some Bridget Jones/Love Actually-esque English charm at some point? Sadly not. If the director’s intention was for us to laugh at rather than with the belligerent Stanley, then he succeeded.  

Old friend and fellow magician, Howard Burkan (a willing, albeit limited Simon McBurney), who has forever been in Stanley’s shadow, tugs at the arrogance and self-assurance of his peer, tempting him into a trip to the French Riviera to debunk the supposed psychic talents of a young American lady who has taken the coal-rich Catledge family under her spell. This young lady is Sophie, played with kookiness and intrigue by the endearing Emma Stone. Lots of staring into the distance and closing her eyes are needed to pick up “mental vibrations”. Will she pull the wool over Stanley’s eyes or are her talents genuine? Will he expose her for a fraud? As far as plot goes, that’s pretty much it. 

As with most of Woody Allen’s films, Magic in the Moonlight is driven by its dialogue but sadly there is very little meat on the bone here and so has to just be taken as a light-hearted romp. Although there are several laughs it is all too trivial and frivolous for any real emotional engagement. I hoped that at some point there would be a murder so that Hercule Poirot could materialise but sadly David Suchet is nowhere to be seen. The film flirts with the idea of contemplating the supernatural, religion, the existence of God, the possibility of an afterlife; but doesn’t get much further than a few mysterious bumps on the floor during a séance and Stanley as far too rational and intelligent to be anything but atheist. Or is he?

Other than being painfully honest, tactless and blunt, what he does to entice Sophie defeats me. Seeing her as more of a pet project than a romantic conquest he responds to an admission of attraction on her part by saying, “I’ve never thought of you as a woman.” Smooth, Stanley. Perhaps it is because he is the polar opposite of the crooning, ukulele-playing, desperately pathetic Brice (Hamish Linklater) that she somehow falls for the older man. But given the nearly 30 years between Firth and Stone, do we really believe that they could be romantically involved?

Despite all my doom and gloom there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Eileen Atkins’ whip-smart performance as Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa is a breath of fresh air. As is the overall look of the film. Cinematographer Darius Khondji worked with Allen on Midnight in Paris (2011) and To Rome with Love (2012) – as well as more recently with James Gray on The Immigrant (2013) which I reviewed last month, proving himself well-suited to rich period pieces – and this time teams up with the veteran director on the Côte d’Azur. Given the setting it is no surprise that visually the film is breathtaking and Khondji does do justice to the beautiful surroundings. The haze that hangs in the air of a summer evening in the south of France seems almost tangible, the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean dance and the rich interiors, costumes and cars are shot with the luxuriousness that they deserve. 

Magic in the Moonlight sees Woody Allen at nowhere near his best. However, if you are able to take it all with a fairly large pinch of salt, sit back and accept that silliness of it all then it’s a passable hour and half’s entertainment. Let’s hope Mr. Allen’s next yearly project has him back on the right track.