Magic In The Moonlight (2014)

magic1.jpg2016.92: Magic In The Moonlight (Amazon VOD)

There was a time that I loved and devoured Woody Allen movies. I loved the zany comedies of the 1970s and the more mature, dramatic comedies of the 1980s, but somewhere over the years the thrill faded. For me, Allen hit his peak with the wonderful Crimes and Misdemeanors, a crushingly bleak  fable about living in a Godless universe without punishment or redemption. Allen’s films could be dramatic and they could be funny, but they always seemed to have a telling observation of the world and how we live in it, our place in it. Crimes and Misdemeanors was something of a masterpiece to me, and is one of my favourite films, a summary of everything Allen had been saying and mulling over in his films before. With that film, to me he’d reached the apex of everything he wanted to say, stunningly scripted, brilliantly acted, with some gorgeous cinematic moments. Allen could have retired there and then, his cinematic immortality assured.

He didn’t of course- he just carried on making movies, something like one a year. With an output s excessive as that, there’s sure to be a few misfires, and this Magic In The Moonlight is just that. Crushingly so. Maybe Allen should curtail his output, just do one film every few years- after all, Blue Jasmine was a damn fine film  and evidence that with the right material he’s capable of so much. Its a tragedy that a guy who can make films as damn fine as that can churn out such forgettable lightweight stuff as this.

The irony of Magic In The Moonlight is that, well,  there’s no actual magic- its quite lifeless and devoid of charm. The title seems to be from a different film entirely. The story is as lightweight as you might suspect, and you can always guess where its headed, one of those cosy stories you can telegraph well ahead. But its alarming how little you care, how little real warmth and involvement there is. The film is a romance without any real chemistry between its lead characters, a handicap the film cannot possibly recover from. It doesn’t help that it seems to all take place in some kind of idyllic Hollywood fairy-tale universe as far removed from our present realty as one could imagine.

A period piece set in 1920s Europe, it depicts a celebrated stage magician, Stanley (Colin Firth, hopelessly adrift here), who is a proud materialist and debunker of spiritualism and purveyors of the occult. He is summoned by an old friend from childhood to the South of France where a wealthy American family is being ‘charmed’ by a young spiritualist claiming to be in touch with the recently deceased elder of the family. This spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), is beautiful and the first-born heir of the family is utterly bewitched by her, intending marriage.

Stanley is supremely confident that he can uncover how Sophie is hoodwinking the family, and save the heir from being conned out of much of his fortune, but is utterly confounded by Sophie’s uncanny ability to ‘know’ things she should have no access to. Eventually he himself begins to fall for her and he announces that he has been wrong all along with his cynical materialism and that she is indeed the ‘real deal’. He sees the world in a different light, all his previous beliefs quite shattered, until a tragedy reaffirms his earlier bleak outlook on the universe and he realises that Sophie is not at all as innocent as she seems. But he still loves her. Whats a pompous irritating git to do?

That’s about it. The central problem is the casting and lack of chemistry between Firth and Stone (God only knows what the age difference is between them, but it shows). Without a romance to empathise with (indeed, all the characters seem fairly one-dimensional, from the dumb idle-rich American family to the irritating Stanley) its hard to get involved, and Allen doesn’t seem to have anything to really say either, which is the greatest sin of all in my book. Is this supposed to be some kind of ‘love conquers all’ kind of thing? Or some commentary on the fantasies we create around us to make life worth living?  I don’t know. I was left with the impression of a film shot with a script that was still in its first draft, quite empty and lacking of any genuine momentum or character. The actors have little to work with, and Allen seems to be just phoning it all in anyway.

A very sorry excuse of a movie really.  Crimes and Misdemeanors seems such a long time ago now, its almost tragic.

 

6 thoughts on “Magic In The Moonlight (2014)

  1. Tom

    I gotta agree with people who think Woody Allen is pushing too many out. I wonder what the ratio is between his inspired works and his completely forgettable duds. It cannot be good. I guess the guy likes to work, but honestly the appeal has all but disappeared for me as well. I saw his Café Society this year and it was . . . meh.

    1. Its a bit like directors like Ridley Scott, who is capable of good films like The Martian or Kingdom of Heaven but is so busy he also manages to crank out uninspired stuff like Exodus or flawed stuff like Prometheus. The hit/miss ratio has to take a hit. I guess its about finding a proper balance – I’d rather have someone as prolific as Ridley compared to someone like James Cameron who is spending a decade on Avatar sequels no-one even wants.

      But Woody Allen needs to slow down and improve the quality of the films he makes. Blue Jasmine proves he has it in him, but dross like Magic in the Moonlight proves he’s spreading himself too thin.

  2. I must confess to rather liking this. I looked up my review and it turns out I gave it 4 stars, which even I’d now say was on the generous side. It’s as lightweight as a balloon and nowhere near Allen’s best work, of course, but I found it a likeabley untaxing way to spend an afternoon. Very prettily shot, too.

  3. Matthew McKinnon

    Yes, you’ve pretty much nailed it for me there. The first paragraph is much the same as my own experience, though I’d say I rate ‘Husbands & Wives’ as highly as ‘Crimes &
    Misdemeanours’.

    And the script thing is exactly my problem, as well. He just seems to bang out a first draft where people walk into a room and say exactly what’s on their mind with no subtlety whatsoever (it’s what you do to get the facts on the page, or get the conversation from a to b, but you absolutely have to finesse it in a later draft or else it plays like bad theatre). And that’s it – that’s what gets shot because no-one edits Woody’s stuff, no-one ever has since the Marshall Brickmam days.

    The main problem I have is that when you go back and watch his earlier films, you can see that at work there as well – some of ‘C&M’ feels terribly forced when you watch it with that in mind, as if Allen wants the scene to say something specific, but without finessing the script he just has the characters baldly blurt out his themes. Subtext becomes text.

    I wonder if it’s an age thing? Allen’s apparent sophistication and uniqueness is entrancing if you’re in your teens and twenties (I remember reading some of Pauline Kael’s criticisms of him back in the 80s and thinking ‘no, no, this can’t be so!’), but as you get older he’s much less convincing.

    Anyway. I find his later stuff literally unwatchable, however nicely photographed it is. I made it through ‘Match Point’ in two sittings out of grim fascination – it’s one of the worst films I’ve ever seen – but I’ve had to switch off ‘Melinda & Melinda’, ‘You Will Meet A…’, that one with Owen Wilson and more besides. And I could only manage one episode of the Amazon TV series, it was so creaky.
    I still love a handful of his older films, but hes just treading water now.

    1. You have me worried about Crimes & Misdemeanors, I really want to watch it again but I’m concerned it won’t hold up now ( its been years since I last saw it).

      Bit of a minefield rewatching old fave films.

      1. Matthew McKinnon

        Oh, it’s still really good! I got the Twilight Time blu-ray [it’s coming to Arrow UK in the new year, looks great].

        His older, better films are still definitely really good – Annie Hall, Manhattan [despite it’s unfortunate ’17 isn’t too young’ angle – YES IT IS!], Broadway Danny Rose, C&M etc.
        It’s just that you can detect flaws that would become much, much more pronounced.

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