Magic in the Moonlight(8/17/2014)

The career of Woody Allen has been one of the most comforting cinematic institutions of the last fifty years.  No matter how much tumult there is in the film industry at any given time and no matter how much the art of filmmaking changes there’s one thing you can always count on: Woody Allen will make a movie every year.  On balance, I think this is a good thing but I’m also perfectly willing to admit that it can lead to his filmography being very inconsistent.  In fact whenever he makes a really good movie you can pretty much count on his follow-up being, at best, nothing special.  Just looking at the last decade he followed up Match Point with Scoop, Vicky Christina Barcelona with Whatever Works, and Midnight in Paris with To Rome With Love.  It’s almost like he needs time to cool down and regain his bearings every time he does something great.  His last movie, Blue Jasmine was one of his biggest triumphs in a while so that wasn’t a good omen for his newest film, Magic in the Moonlight.  But, hope springs eternal and there aren’t many other movies coming out in the next two months, so I thought I’d give this a shot anyway.

Magic in the Moonlight is actually a period piece, Allen’s first in a while.  It’s set in 1928 and placed largely in the world of wealthy British ex-pats in the South of France.  Our main protagonist is Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a world renowned magician who, like Houdini before him, was a staunch skeptic dedicated to debunking purported psychics and mediums.  One of his magician colleagues, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), also shares Crawford’s passion for skepticism but comes to him one day and tells him he’s seen something that’s shaken his resolve.  He tells him about a purported psychic named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who’s abilities seem oddly genuine and haven’t been debunked in the usual ways.  Seeing a challenge, he decides to go out to the summer estate where this purported medium has been trying to impress a wealthy patron in order to prove that she’s a fraud, but ultimately finds himself more than a little fascinated with the woman he finds.

So, we have the setup here for a typically breezy Woody Allen examination of an intellectual concern: in this case the conflict between logical skepticism and belief in the supernatural.  This debate is not some sort of subtle message either, it’s right up on the surface and is actively discussed by characters throughout the movie and not always in ways that are overly eloquent.  Stanley Crawford is a very broad character.  He’s dogmatically opposed to the notion of supernatural powers and isn’t exactly diplomatic in the way he explain this to people.  In fact he’s sort of an asshole and not a particularly well drawn one at that.  I also wasn’t that fond of the arc that the film gave him either.  Instead of having him very gradually start to come around to the possibility that this woman might be a real psychic the film just has him suddenly change his decision on a dime in one really poorly drawn scene.

Now, as many people know, the soap opera that is Woody Allen’s personal life was in the news again not too long ago and I wasn’t planning on mentioning it, but it turns out that this movie actually has more to do with its artist’s personal history than most of his films do.  To discuss this I’m going to have to go into spoilers going forward. The film’s ultimate take on the battle between the secular and the spiritual ultimately gets resolved in pretty much the way you’d expect it to be solved coming from the writer of Hannah and Her Sisters but at the very end Allen does find a somewhat interesting way to tie the film’s philosophical side with its romantic comedy side, by ultimately having its protagonist decide that he loves this phony psychic even though it doesn’t fit into his life’s plans and proposing to her is completely irrational and self-destructive… in other words “the heart wants what it wants.” It’s an interesting sentiment to be coming from a man who became famous for his scandalous marriage.

That biographical quirk interested me as someone who’s been following Woody Allen’s work and biography for a while, but the romance feels like it was completely forced into the movie in order to get to it.  I certainly believe that Crawford would fall for Baker but the movie does absolutely nothing to explain why Baker would reciprocate these feelings given that Crawford is a stubborn asshole who’s almost twice her age.  Yeah, maybe looking for a logical explanation for why she’d be into him is a little ridiculous in a movie that’s all about the irrational and arbitrary nature of love, but that doesn’t excuse Allen for not bothering to show Baker’s evolving feelings in the same way he depicted an evolution in Crawford’s  point of view.  That’s something that I genuinely feel like Allen would have been able to correct if he had just slowed down and fined tuned his screenplay.  This is the dark side of Allen’s charmingly prolific work schedule, I really do think that sometimes it leads him to rush stuff like this into production without really perfecting his script and ideas with potential end up getting the shaft because of it.

** out of Four

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