So it has come down to this: Woody Allen has made a movie that is so bland, derivative of his earlier work and completely lazy that it’s possible to wonder just what it is the man believes. Is he, like Magic in the Moonlight’s Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) so immersed in his own ideas that even the slightest alteration of personal habits makes for, at best, an uncomfortable experience and at worst, horrific and tortured drudgery?
Or is he like Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to take the world on its own terms? If you’ve seen more than two Woody Allen films, you know the answer: He’s immersed in his own world at the expense of everything else, and he’s for damn sure not facing the world on its own terms.
Of course, why should he face the world on its own terms? This is the man who made Annie Hall, and Manhattan, and Bullets Over Broadway, and Match Point. These are movies that will go down in history as some of the best, or at least the best of Allen’s oeuvre.
But in dealing with Allen on his own terms, one also has to sift through the dregs, such as Bananas, and Scoop, and Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Anything Else, and Mighty Aphrodite. One could make the argument that Allen has made so many movies—and so many good movies—that his repetitive themes may be overlooked, even when those themes are repeated so often they become dull. Seriously: How about instead of a movie a year (which all but guarantees a share of clunkers, such as the recent Blue Jasmine, which has nothing resembling a human being, except maybe Andrew Dice Clay’s character), we alternate years and let the cream rise to the surface?
And that brings me to Magic in the Moonlight, which isn’t so much fresh cream as it is rotten curds. One taste guarantees death, or at least a very unpleasant couple days near the toilet. Worse yet is that it’s dressed up to be whimsical and silly, but it’s moldy and ugly.
Take, for example, the yellowface. Stanley, a famous magician, performs nightly in character as Wei Ling Soo, which is presumably a reference to William Robinson, a magician who performed as a character named Chung Ling Soo. Magic in the Moonlight takes place sometime after the Great War but before World War II, so sure, yellowface was common, or at least not considered in poor taste. But guess what? It’s 2014, and it’s in really poor fucking taste. At least Wei Long Soo doesn’t speak in character in the movie.
Then there’s one of Allen’s favorite tropes, the May-December romance. As of this writing, Firth is roughly 53 and Stone about 25. Ginormous age disparities have been all over the movies since forever, but it’s particularly creepy given Allen’s history of marrying his ex-girlfriend’s adopted daughter, whom he knew when she was a teenager.
I know, I know. It’s unfair to bring Allen’s personal life into criticism of his work. But what of the work? Right, the plot: Magic in the Moonlight concerns Stanley being engaged by his friend Howard (Simon McBurney) to uncover the tricks of Sophie (Stone), a penniless, alleged soothsayer and mystic who’s about to marry into a rich family.
Stanley, a noted skeptic and atheist (in other words, a stand-in for Allen), thinks Sophie, an uneducated but beautiful creature (in other words, most women in most Woody Allen movies) is a con artist. Of course he falls in love with her. And of course, she is a con artist. But that doesn’t matter, because Stanley is proved right, and therefore smarter than everyone; he gets to unmask the woman as a fraud and gets to fuck his cake, too.
Ugh. The whole thing is so distasteful that you may not notice Stanley and Sophie don’t spend much time together on screen, or get to know each other, or have chemistry. Or that the smartest woman in the picture, Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), has chosen a life of solitude after being spurned by a lover years earlier. You know, because that’s what people with broken hearts do.
And that’s the reason I bring up Allen’s weird misogyny—there’s no good reason Sophie should be such a naïf. The women in his movies generally get shit on (Melinda and Melinda, Hollywood Ending, Match Point, Husbands and Wives) or are dumber than the men (Manhattan, Alice, Blue Jasmine) or are so unreasonably terrible that it defies explanation (Rachel McAdams’ character in Midnight in Paris). There is the rare (and wonderful) Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters which makes the men the doofuses, but those types of stories are conspicuously fewer.
That’s a long way of saying even a featherweight piece of fluff like Magic in the Moonlight betrays an underbelly of ugliness. Stone is working with Allen on the movie he’s currently shooting. I wonder whether she’ll be allowed to grow up in that one.
Magic in the Moonlight (PG-13)
Dir. and writ. Woody Allen; feat. Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney
Opens Aug 15 at Santikos Bijou
★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)