Rarely do people say they’re going to a matinee of Midnight in Paris or the 7:30pm showing of Blue Jasmine. No, they’re going to see “the new Woody Allen film." After all, the man has made 44 films in 48 years, and has become quite the household name. Given the nearly impenetrable Hollywood slog, that’s an extremely impressive figure, a testament to his deep creative well, a tireless work ethic and a deserved reputation as a director who consistently produces quality films. He’s less hit or miss than reliable (though he has made some classics i.e. Annie Hall). The latest entry in Allen’s mountainous collection is Magic in the Moonlight, a pleasant video montage of Southern France at its best, a hollow love story at its core.
Set in 1928 France, the story centers on famed English stage magician Stanley (Colin Firth), and his efforts to debunk the perceived actual magic of a young American mystic (Emma Stone), who he believes is pandering claims of telepathic abilities for fame and fortune. Trouble is, she’s beautiful and convincing in her act, so the staunchly rational Stanley has his worldview shaken up by her irrational mystique. And of course, they fall in and out of love and then in and out some more. As this is an Allen film, it isn’t entirely unenjoyable, but it has enough pacing and script flaws to bump it towards the rear of his recent works.
For one, the love thread is utterly unconvincing. Stanley shifts his perspective with the ease of a politician during an election year. He’s rather far on one end of the believer scale one second, and at the opposite extreme the next. He despises all that is truly magical and irrational, namely Sophie (Stone’s mystic). And then a cut later he is in awe of all she can do, including her “agreeable features." One moment, he’s oblivious to her feelings for him. Five minutes of screen time later, he’s breathlessly proposing to her. It’s all a bit implausible and confusing, and the emotional essence of this love story never quite materializes as a result. Also, as Stanley transforms from skeptic to believer, he sort of just stammers around, explaining himself all the time. The film is bloated with “tell” sequences instead of “show” sequences.
Though the characters themselves have obvious written flaws, the acting is solid throughout. Emma Stone is most effective when she’s acting as a woman who slowly falls for the dapper Stanley, rather than acting as a mystic. Her “mental impressions” and séance demonstrations get tiring, and though intentionally overdone, are still a bit much. Firth, as the pithy and pretentious Stanley is often funny in his bruising wit, but his presence in nearly every shot gets overbearing. We can only listen to so much English snobbery after all. The ensemble cast all play their parts well, Eileen Atkins’s Aunt Vanessa in particular. She’s a cute and sharp elderly woman, with enough wit to go toe-to-toe with Stanley and enough charm to warm his icy demeanor.
In spite of its rushed plot and less than convincing characters, the film is beautiful to look at, mostly due to its setting and costume design. The seaside dirt roads and antique cars are charming. The azure Mediterranean Sea is mesmerizing. Aunt Vanessa’s home in Provence is bathed in sunlight and flowers, and even a thunderstorm that strands Stanley and Sophie is nice to look at. Allen is a vocal nostalgic, setting his films deep in a past before TMZ induced scandals (his personal life has been in the news of late) and Apple. Allen meticulously re-creates worlds of the past in some of his more recent films, and his typically elderly audience seems more than willing to jump in with him.
As a child, Woody Allen was fascinated with illusions and cheap magic tricks. And then he found a camera and a love of cinema. A sense of magic has always been felt in his films, some more so than others. Magic in the Moonlight might feature an actual magician and larger ideas about the existing nonmagical world, but it lacks any real spark. Allen already has films 45, 46 and 47 in pre-production stages, and based on his track record, I’m sure he’ll re-discover the magic in no time.