Bad Cinema: Magic in the Moonlight (Dir: Woody Allen, 2014)

Forgive me, Woody, but I must tell it like it is.

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To be fair, Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen’s 48th feature as director, is not his worst. That title could be reserved for Cassandra’s Dream. Or Melinda and Melinda. Or Hollywood Ending. But Moonlight is most clear in my mind so here we are.

Let’s start with what was good about it. Woody Allen, my vote for the greatest director of all time, has never made a terrible movie. Even the above titles are more enjoyable than some of the brainless tripe invading our cineplexes like locusts.

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Like all Allen films, the acting is worthy of note. Emma Stone is charming, beautiful, incandescent, and perfectly cast as Sophie Baker, the shyster medium who has a family of aristocrats fooled into thinking she is the real deal. Her gumption is prototypically Woody, but she blissfully lacks the neuroses that plagues most of his heroines. It is a refreshing change of pace (the only thing that is…). Colin Firth as the cynical Allen conduit sent to debunk Sophie, who of course is wooed by her feminine wiles, is fully committed to his character, however surface and trite and smug he is. Marcia Gay Harden, always great, is given a nothing part so basically just sashays around with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth. Then there is Jackie Weaver, kooky and campy and a breath of fresh air to this maudlin albatross. If she had had another scene or two, she may be the one to watch for an Oscar nod. If this film is remembered. Which it shouldn’t be.

Woody. Woody. Woody. How do you go from Blue Jasmine, a crowning addition to your list of established masterpieces, and give us…this. A film so lazy, so bloated with its own bullshit, so Memorexed that I could have quoted it before hand.

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Firth plays Stanley, a magician known as Wei Ling Soo. After a didactic discussion about how he is the greatest debunker of chicanery and how no one can fool him, he heads to the south of France to investigate Stone’s “vibrations” and prove that he is indeed the greatest debunker of false soothsayers. However, after a brief encounter at an observatory and a battery of quizs, he thinks that maybe Sophie may be legit. That maybe he has been wrong. That maybe, just maybe, there is “magic in the moonlight.”

 

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Of course, Allen doesn’t let this go on. Soon we find out that she IS indeed a fraud (after an aborted prayer, perhaps the first one Stanley has ever said…) and that HA there is no such thing as magic, but maybe believing in magic isn’t such a bad thing because it gives people hope. God gives people hope. And sometimes it’s better to live with your illusions than without them. And perhaps “love” is the greatest most inexplicable magic of all.

It’s not that Allen has mined this thesis before (which he has – innumerable times in Blue Jasmine, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Midnight in Paris, and a litany of others) that makes this film an eye roller. It’s that he has done it so much better in other films (Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan) that what is the point in repeating it ad nauseum? We know that Woody is an atheist. We know that he is a nihilist. So why tell us again? If there is nothing new to add to the conversation, why keep having it? That’s the beauty of film over an impromptu conversation. The film is forever. We can pull it down and get our history lesson, our moral agenda for the day, the week, the month, or our life. But it seems that Woody, the chronic work horse, falls back on familiar territory just to keep working. Woody may have run out of things to say. And as one of the most erudite and exciting academic filmmakers of our time, this saddens me greatly.

A note on the May-December “romance,” we’ll call it. I have no problem continuing to take this leap of faith with you, Mr. Allen. After all, it is your life and we know, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” That’s fine. Seriously. I do not care. Love is complicated and crazy and irrational. But at least if you are going to put us through this unorthodox phenomenon, at least give us a reasonable facsimile, a modicum, of believability!

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Gone are the days of Isaac and Tracy, Gabe and Rain, or even Boris and Melodie. Stanley and Sophie lack any kind of chemistry, any hint of connection that when Sophie first broaches the subject of a love affair, I had to remind myself that I was in a romantic comedy instead of the polemic drawing room BS it more closely resembles. There is one scene – the proposal scene in the park – that gives us a hint of the Woody who has earned his legend, but it seems like a scene from another, better film that somehow found its way into this mess as if by accident. And then when she accepts his marriage proposal at the end, in a shot reminiscent of the end of My Fair Lady, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to Higgins’ damn slippers even while smirking in spite of my own disappointment at Woody’s sophomoric first draft. I was outside of the film looking in instead of immersing myself fully into what, on paper, could have been a very enticing world. Woody’s politics for once got in the way of his legendary ace in the hole: the crimes of the heart. Poor Firth and Stone, both incredibly talented actors, ended up Two Characters In Search of a Director. Perhaps he was too busy thinking about his next film to give a damn about the one at hand.

I wish he would take breaks between films. As Paris and Jasmine and Vicky Cristina Barcelona prove, the man still has great work in him, irrespective of his monotonous morality. Which is why I am not too upset about Magic in the Moonlight. Another film will arrive next summer, like clock work. And this is his pattern. He throws all of his creative energy into a masterpiece and then spends the next film gaining it back. How else can the man who made Husbands and Wives have turned out Shadows and Fog?

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 ***Rip van Winkle***