Medium Well Done
Another week, another Colin Firth film – or should that be, another year, another Woody Allen film? As you may have surmised, Magic in the Moonlight is both. Early Autumn seems to have become established as the point in the year when Allen releases his annual project, though while the release date is steady, Allen's choice of subject matter is as varied as ever.
That said, you're never really in danger of mistaking any of Allen's recent films for the work of someone else. In fact, settling down to write about one of them one finds oneself with a comforting sense of being able to fall back on the same set of observations one always makes about recent Woody Allen movies, said observations pertaining to:
- The comforting familiarity of the Allen graphic design (i.e., it seems like every film he's made in the last forty years has had its titles in the same style and font)
- The director's fondness for a jazz soundtrack, if not a full-blown Jazz Age setting
- His continuing ability to attract a first-rate cast to what are often fairly inconsequential films
- A generally miserabilist, and occasionally wholly misanthropic worldview
- The repeated trope of the May to December romance between an older, cultured man and an extremely attractive, much younger, much less erudite woman (with the corollary that one is inevitably moved to speculate about Allen's own personal history)
- And so on.
So I set myself the challenge of going to see Magic in the Moonlight and then writing about it without recourse to any of the easy options listed above.
The film is set in 1928. Firth plays Stanley Crawford, an egotistical and rather insufferable stage magician who as a sort of hobby specialises in exposing fake spirit mediums (a phrase he would regard as tautologous: a committed materialist, he scorns any kind of mysticism or spirituality). His plans to visit the Galapagos Islands with his fiancee (Firth's use of the word 'turtle' rather than 'tortoise' to describe the Islands' most famous residents reveals that he is an Englishman being written by an American, but never mind) are disrupted when he is asked to visit the Catledges, an extremely wealthy American family sojourning in the south of France. The heir to the family fortune appears to have fallen under the sway of a young woman named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who claims to be psychically sensitive herself. Other concerned family members would like him to debunk her and rid themselves of her influence over the family's affairs.
Crawford agrees but finds himself rattled when Sophie appears to know things about him which she has had no way of finding out. Could she possibly be for real? As his rationality wavers and his fascination with her grows, Crawford finds himself beginning to enjoy life far more than he has in years – but can he really bring himself to put aside the habits of a lifetime and embrace the existence of the supernatural?
The thing about Woody Allen and his workrate is that he does keep on knocking them out, year after year, come what may. His films are always modestly scaled and reasonably budgeted – no big set pieces or massive special effects, just collections of actors in rooms delivering dialogue at each other. While this means he's never going to destroy his own career with a John Carter-esque fiasco, it does mean that even the best of his films tend to be rather lightweight, and tend to get lost in the crowd of all the others. Last year's Blue Jasmine was given some serious heft by a heavy-duty performance from Cate Blanchett – but Magic in the Moonlight has no such distinguishing features.
The 1920s setting is nicely mounted and the film is very pleasant to look upon throughout... and... and... and... and at this point I really run out of things to say about Magic in the Moonlight that don't contravene my self-imposed ban on falling back on the usual Allen points of reference, because they are all here. There is a deeply unlikely romance between Colin Firth and Emma Stone (he openly scorns her lack of education and promises he will help to train her brain during their future together), a soundtrack crammed with Jazz Age standards (at one point I was on the point of screaming 'Oh God, not 'You Do Something To Me' again!!!' in the cinema), and a storyline which is fundamentally about whether it's better to be a deluded romantic fool or a realistic curmudgeon. Allen, needless to say, comes down firmly in the latter camp. The film also features quality performers like Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins, and Simon McBurney.
But it really is just the usual Woody Allen components jigged about into a new arrangement, in vaguely amusing period hats. Perhaps the only addition, and this is a very slight one, is some almost philosophical discussion about whether it's actually possible to completely disprove something's existence, and indeed whether perfectly reproducing something through fakery automatically proves that the original must have been fake too. The rest of it has no real novelty value to it.
Does it follow that Magic in the Moonlight is a bad film, then? Well, no, not necessarily – and especially not if you're less well-versed in the Allen back catalogue than I am. It is well-mounted, and the story is pleasant and easy to follow, if perhaps a little predictable in places. The problem with it, really, is that the characterisations and dialogue are all just a bit too perfunctory – Crawford is written as such an arrogant and self-assured egotist that you just know he's going to have his beliefs seriously challenged, and so on. The characters have no real depth or sense of a genuine internal life about them, and you always have a very good sense of which way the story is going to go.
As a result, Magic in the Moonlight has a sort of cosy familiarity to it in more ways than one. Firth and Stone give of their best, and if their coming together is less than entirely convincing then they can hardly be blamed for it. At least, for a film made by a great misanthrope, it does conclude with a testament to the redemptive power of love: another reasonably frequent theme in Allen movies, or at least those made when he is in a good mood. Perhaps this is one of the things that keeps Woody Allen's films palatable, no matter how gloomy and formulaic they sometimes seem to be threatening to become. This isn't an especially gloomy film, but it contains very few surprises. In the end, there’s nothing very much wrong with it, but for all of the skill with which it’s made, it’s ultimately very insubstantial.