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Magic in the Moonlight

Emma Stone and Colin Firth in "Magic in the Moonlight."

Do you believe in magic?

Magic in the Moonlight

Woody Allen is widely credited with saying that a large part of success “is just showing up.” He’s certainly done just that. Since his first movie almost half-a-century ago, he’s built up one of the lengthiest motion picture resumes in the history of this art form. His prolificacy is almost extraordinary. Over the course of this probably unprecedented career he’s become the premier auteur in American movies, a director whose work is consistently hallmarked by certain themes and situations. (Or so says the greatly influential theory borrowed from French intellectuals in the 1960s by American cineastes and popularized by the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris). These directors’ consistent concerns and practices are evidence of their artistry. The theory is very French and manages to combine narrow formalism and an airy-fairy indifference to capitalist facts of life: movie-making has been a mass-market industry, not a sphere of individualistic creativity. No matter; it did succeed in focusing more attention on the neglected role of the director.

Allen has more than earned recognition as the greatest current auteur, for good and ill. Productivity, showing up, has a lot to do with it, along with consistency. But as film historian David Thomson noted years ago, Allen’s movies are too often “so small and inconsequential...that they make his productivity seem artificial.” There can be little doubt that he’s made several films—Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, perhaps two or three others—that are signal achievements, all of them comedies. Then there are the “serious” quasi-Bergmanesque efforts in the late 1970s and 80s. They can be hard to take seriously, although many have taken them this way. (About one, 1979’s Interiors, Pauline Kael cracked, “It’s deep on the surface.”)

All of this intimidating productivity over the last quarter-century has resulted in a rather flat creative landscape. Something like Bullets Over Broadway may offer a small elevation of accomplishment, but the rest is pretty mediocre. Last year’s unusually popular Blue Jasmine, with its unexpected allusions to Tennessee Williams, was strange, but, I think, unsuccessful.

Magic in the Moonlight, his latest, is a case in point. It returns to perennial Allen concerns—realism vs. fantasy, mortality, philosophy of life—but its treatment of ideas is too thin and listless to really engage one.

Set in the late 1920’s, it centers on Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a stellar English magician, who performs, heavily made up, as the Chinese Wei Ling Soo. On the side, a la Houdini, he exposes spiritualist frauds, fortune tellers and spirit mediums.

When an old friend arouses his interest in a young woman, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who is supposedly connecting a rich American family in the South of France with its departed patriarch, Stanley hies off to end this scam. And wadda ya know? He can’t. Is she the real thing? This is a heavy blow to his ego and belief system. He’s a determined skeptic and rationalist who quotes Nietzsche. “Depressing as the facts of existence are,” he tells Sophie, “they are the facts.” Not only is his own kind of faith cracking, but his admiration for Sophie is becoming more personal.

This story plays out in a striking setting on the Mediterranean, very handsomely captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji on 35mm film, not digitally, using old cinemascope lenses. But even these resources aren’t really optimally used by Allen. His compositions are often limited to largely static medium-long shots of his actors. And the pacing of the film is similarly lacking in energy. Magic is essentially an off-beat romantic comedy and Allen doesn’t seem to have the hang of this sort of thing. Stanley is such a pedagogically superior prig, it’s hard to understand why Sophie is even tentatively attracted to him. (There’s also Stanley’s over quarter-century age difference with her, a longstanding Allen device.)

Firth’s skillful playing almost make all this acceptable; he manages to invest Stanley with some prideful poignance. Stone makes Sophie seem a sensible girl. But Allen’s conceit seems to be based on pointing out the ironies of human inconsistencies and weakness, punctuated by his observational wit. Magic is mildly pleasant in stretches, but the wit isn’t pointed or memorable.

The New Yorker’s David Denby sees Firth’s Stanley as resembling his portrayal of Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy years ago, but there’s really more of Shaw’s Henry Higgins in the part. At the movie’s very end there’s another vague, perhaps unintentional allusion to Shaw. My comparison is meant only for very limited purposes.

Watch the trailer for Magic in the Moonlight

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