Woody Allen famously doesn’t understand texting, still writes his scripts on a typewriter, and calls computers “word processors.” Artistically, his particular style of slightly stagey, hyperarticulate-yet-demure verbal sparring similarly harkens back to a bygone era, and a lot of his scenes nowadays don’t really elicit belly laughs so much as they make you smile and think “Aw, I bet my mom is really going to like this.”
So the 78-year-old setting his latest movie, Magic in the Moonlight, in 1928 Europe, when Lucky Lindy’s transatlantic flight was the talk of every town and Weimar Germany was still in full cabaret mode, seems like the perfect narrative device to play to every Woody Allen strength – writing cutesy-clever but mostly chaste tete-a-tetes between well-dressed upper-middle-class white intellectuals bathed in Mediterranean sunlight – while excusing every Woody Allen fault – not really being able to write minorities, tragedy, the poor, or dialogue that sounds realistic in 2014. It’s a brilliantly self-aware narrative choice (or at least seems like one), until it quickly gets negated tenfold by the sheer tone deafness of a romance between 53-year-old Colin Firth and 25-year-old Emma Stone. Not to mention a narrative arc that basically consists of “how will this supporting cast of pleasant people help an emotionally stunted dickhead become slightly less immature by the final credits?”
Colin Firth plays Stanley, AKA Wei Ling Soo, a magician who performs in Asian face at Berlin cabarets who is publicly open in his belief that real magic doesn’t exist, God is dead, Nietzsche was right, and that the only people who believe in anything beyond what can be seen and proved are either fools or charlatans (MESSAGE!). Besides being an over-the-top, pompous, sarcastic meanie who calls an adoring fan a sodomite in the opening scene, one of Stanley’s favorite hobbies is exposing fake psychics and hucksters (which is historically accurate, seances and attempting to speak to the dead was all the rage in the 1920s, even at one point seducing Arthur Conan Doyle). Soon Stanley’s friend and fellow magician played by Simon McBurney comes to him for help exposing a spiritual medium (a hot, young spiritual medium with dinner plates for eyes, played by Emma Stone, who looks incredible in floral hats) who has pulled a Rasputin on a family with a dead patriarch and vast inheritance in the south of France (ie, the place Woody Allen likes to vacation). Stanley’s friend can’t figure out her trick, says she seems like the real deal, and so Stanley is tapped to come expose her. But WHO WILL END UP EXPOSING WHOM??! It’s all basically a big set up for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels 2: Lolita Edition.
She soon has Stanley convinced too, which doesn’t happen gradually, but all at once, with Stanley going from condescending skeptic to doe-eyed believer practically in the middle of a sentence. “Where have you been all my life!” he tells her. Firth, so likable when he’s doing nuance, gets no opportunity for that here, and basically portrays a caricature of reasons people hate the English. He goes from thinking that “the only supernatural power in this world wears a black robe” (death, get it?) to believing in all things magical and then back to skeptic again (just as abruptly the second time). But then it turns out that the twist is, irrational, supernatural magic does exist in the world – the real magic is LOVE!
Magic in the Moonlight is compelling for a lot of its running time, but only for as long as it keeps you slightly confused, where you can’t quite tell where it’s going (maybe it will be somewhere good!). Once you figure out the rub, you think, as Stanley says, “it turns out all my optimism was an illusion.”
The central challenge of any narrative that pits the rational against the supernatural, unless you’re making Heaven Is For Real, is how to come off rational while still leaving room for possibility, and not sucking all of the magic out of the world and not just being a big downer. Woody, the aging, die-hard atheist rationalist, has found his solution for this – LOVE! Love is magic! It might be a decent solution IF the love in question wasn’t the love between a pretty young thing and a 50-something dick who spends the entire movie belittling her. Alternate title: Negging Is For Real.
Maybe the movie is about Woody’s stand-in finally coming to grips with What The Universe Means To Him. Fine. Thing is, I know Woody is old, but even the writers of Casablanca knew that sometimes true maturation means you don’t get the girl at the end.