Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Runtime: 97 minutes.
Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden.
Trailer: ‘She won’t fool me.’
Plot: Master magician and debunker Stanley Crawford is summoned by a colleague to investigate a possible psychic or possible imposter, who has installed herself in the south of France with a rich American family. With the heir to the fortune madly in love with the possible swindler, Stanley sets out to expose her cheap tricks, but is unable – leading him to question his own attitude to the world, embrace a new sense of wonder, and possibly fall in love with the charlatan herself.
Review: Magic in the Moonlight is an amiable and aimless film, Woody Allen’s 46th film as director, and 50th film as a credited writer. At this point he has transformed himself into the Alfred Hitchcock of first world neuroses films – a genre almost wholly invented by himself, or his imitators, with their misanthropic leads who spout the cliff notes to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and wait for an encounter with an ethereal beauty to transform their existences. Magic in the Moonlight is no different, as arrogant and confirmed sceptic Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) repairs to the south of France to expose charlatan psychic Sophie Baker (Emma Stone); that ‘she is a visionary and a vision’ establishes the turmoil she is to cause within Stanley’s closed worldview (in both the experiential and metaphysical sense). It may sound like damning the film with faint praise to say that it was a pleasant enough diversion for 97 minutes, and only barely overstayed its welcome, and that is because it is. Sadly, when one has a resume as long as Allen’s or Hitchcock’s, the memories of past revolutionary glories make the most recent outing seem a little faint and unimpressive.
It does not help that Allen keeps returning to the same site like a man with a guilty conscience – here, the 1920s, as in 2011’s Midnight in Paris; and to various stand-ins for Mr. Allen and his worldview; and various stand-ins for Ms. Diane Keaton et al. and the obvious romantic impact they had on Mr. Allen’s worldview. Surprisingly – for a film about a psychic and the relationships that she has to deftly navigate, while fending off the lovable puppy of an heir who practices the ukulele and wants to make her rich and pamper her, or her growing feelings for a man who despises her and wishes to expose her as a fraud, or the sensitive attempts she makes to bring closure to a grieving widow who is deeply upset about rumours of her dead husband’s affairs – Mr. Allen chooses to focus on the character he knows better, himself, that is his chief stand-in Stanley Crawford. This is unfortunate; as we have seen this character many times before, almost exclusively in Woody Allen films. Therefore, the emotional mileage and resonance that the audience will experience through watching his opening up to new possibilities within the world will be limited.
The script itself is witty but slowly paced; and although you will have heard many of the jokes from Mr. Allen before, you won’t mind hearing again. Except for poor Friedrich Nietzsche, who has a strong case for defamation against the director for consistently misrepresenting his philosophical position about the nature and death or otherwise of the Christian deity.
Like every other grating undergraduate, Mr. Allen only ever quotes ‘God is Dead’ from the back of a Nietzsche coffee mug, never bothering to explore the words of Nietzsche before or after in The Gay Science. Like all swaggering, coffee shop, presumptive philosophers wanting to impress at parties with their sophistication, every time he cites it he doesn’t make it clear whether he is drawing on s. 108 (‘After Budda was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave…’), s. 125 (‘The madman… “I seek God! I seek God!” … he provoked much laughter.’), or s. 343 (‘The meaning of our cheerfulness.’) The first citation – the worship of a hollow form, or a golden calf, prompts Nietzsche’s investigations into the roots of morality and his challenge to Kant’s Transcendental Metaphysics within his Genealogy of Morals. This interrogation of power, the creation of structures of subjectivity, and the nature of being with others opens onto a huge swage of 20th century Continental philosophy; much of which is concerned with the investigation of these long, historical shadows and the contingent structures they have created. Section 125 leads to Nietzsche’s interrogation of the ‘nature’ of the killers of God, the roots of human creativity and decline, and the health of civilisations (as well as the myths that animate them) in Beyond Good and Evil. Whether they know it or not (and probably not, suckling like parasites on the side of history, philosophy, and literature but not bothering to be competent in those areas), modern anthropology, sociology, and many other human sciences owe a great deal to his work there. The last, the meaning of our cheerfulness, leads Nietzsche famously into an interrogation of what sort of freedom is given in the face of the death of a god; and animates his Thus Spake Zarathustra, as well as his elaboration of the concept of the Übermensch, the final man, and his concept of the tables of law and morality being broken to be replaced. This led to Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, the hero, and the call of conscience; as well as some of the most unconscionable misuses of Nietzsche’s philosophy under the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. So the next time someone quotes Nietzsche’s ‘God is Dead’ to you in a facile manner, interrogate them a little with that and when they fail to give you a good answer, intellectually exposed, tell that jumped up Hitchens reading, philosophically ignorant, just as limited little twerp to shut the fuck up and let the grownups talk. That was certainly the speech I wanted to give during the protagonists’ own self-righteous speech at the denouement of the film.
That Colin Firth’s performance prevents his character from degenerating into a total ass is a testament to his skill and charm as an actor; as the potentiality is certainly there, and indeed much humour is extracted from Charles’ arrogance. Similarly, Emma Stone turns in an excellent performance as fragile but unyielding Sophie, and she looks so absolutely luminous and porcelain white on screen that you might almost believe she was entirely CGI. The other elements of the film fall into place without surprise, as the film soaks up an undue amount of golden sunshine and twilight beaches, and wallows in the luxurious fabric of the lives of the rich. For fans of Downton Abbey there is much to enjoy, even if this film only documents the lives of their crass American cousins; however other audience members are likely to be left wanting more from the film – some of that sharp, satiric edge that marked Allen’s earlier films (did it disappear with the death of Howard Cosell?). That this is not to be found here is unsurprising; the targets are aging, like Mr. Allen’s sensibilities, and we should simply be thankful that he is not turning out something actively terrible (like Anything Else).
Woody Allen’s films have become a Hollywood institution, like the Oscars – predominantly an award to notable actors, an acknowledgement that at a certain point in a successful career one has to do a movie with Woody. Then it’s on to a BAFTA for that challenging independent film they were in, a movie with Marty Scorsese where they get to say “fuck”, then a lifetime achievement award. Finally, it’s a bucket of green slime and hosting the Kid’s Choice awards.
In short, Magic in the Moonlight: Sure, it’s fine. It’s a late Woody Allen film.
Rating: Three stars.