Two things you can put your money on every summer: the Cubs will not make it to the World Series and Woody Allen will release another movie. As he has every year since Annie Hall in 1977, the 78-year-old Allen has provided us with another film—his 44th—to balance out the superheroes, sequels, and assorted “blockbuster” trivialities that light up screens in the overcooled movie houses of July and August. And two things you can count on from a Woody Allen film: the characters will speak actual lines of dialogue, as opposed to one-liners that occasionally interrupt the 3D special effects and interminable battle scenes of even the best of summer action films (i.e. Guardians of the Galaxy); and that you will actually be able to hear and understand that dialogue, because it’s not whispered and mumbled by shadowy figures in darkened landscapes that you can’t see. But maybe I’m just showing my age.
But more than this, Allen’s dialogue also tends to be about ideas, not simply plot points, and even though those ideas are generally ones that Allen has been obsessed with for 45 years, as they are in his latest feature Magic in the Moonlight—specifically, the question of whether the universe consists solely of physical phenomena and existence is therefore meaningless, or whether there is a realm of the spiritual that underscores this veil of tears with metaphysical significance—they are questions that few other filmmakers are asking.
Magic in the Moonlight does not reach the heights of last year’s splendid Blue Jasmine. As a romantic and nostalgic European romp it does not have the charm of Midnight in Paris. And it is far too light to carry the existential angst of Match Point. But if we resist the temptation to compare it to Allen’s own triumphs, it stands up pretty well as an entertaining and thought-provoking way to spend a summer afternoon. Beginning in Berlin in 1928, the film introduces the world-renowned conjurer Wei Ling Soo, who, we discover backstage, is the stage persona of the Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), He is prevailed upon by his longtime friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to come to the Côte d’Azur in southern France to help him expose the beautiful young psychic Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who, with the backing of her greedy mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden, who, curiously, has almost nothing to do in the movie), is attempting to scam a rich American widow, Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver) who longs to communicate with her dead husband. Burkan and Firth stay at the Catledge’s villa, where young Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater), an inconsequential ukulele-playing twit—but a rich one—complicates matters by proposing to the winsome clairvoyant. Stanley, who prides himself on his rationality to the point of egotism, snobbishness, and blatant rudeness, and who takes great pleasure in discrediting phony spiritualists, is determined to expose Sophie for the charlatan she is.
Thus a dichotomy is set up between the rational and skeptical on the one hand and the emotional and romantic on the other; between male intellectualism and female emotionalism; between the establishment personified by the rational Stanley and the new society represented by the spiritual Sophie. Once these poles are established, it is fairly easy to predict the outcome. This is, after all, a romantic comedy, and the two people who start off hating one another always end up together. But if the plot is predictable, that is not necessarily a flaw: the plot deals with archetypal forms and patterns, and in large part that is what makes it appealing. Besides, the final twist provides enough of a surprise to please most viewers, if they don’t see it coming in quite that way.
No, what I object to most in the film is the characterization of Stanley and Sophie. Stone is perfectly lovely and appropriately sassy regarding her occupation while at the same time ingénue-like when it comes to matters of the heart, but she’s somewhat flat and has little depth. Allen, known for eliciting brilliant performances from his lead actresses (like Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn in Blue Jasmine) has given us more of a simple cliché in Sophie. As for Firth, I found his character disappointingly unlikeable. He has the kind of bullying, rational egotism of a Henry Higgins, but Rex Harrison was so much more likeable, perhaps because he was more humorous and elicited more sympathy in his longing for Eliza, than Firth is able to muster in this film. Firth’s character is more deliberately insulting and hurtful, and his conversion, though hinted at once or twice, is much more abrupt and seemingly unmotivated, so that I was taken aback by its clumsiness. I don’t know whether it was Firth’s acting (he is one of our finest actors, but his performance here will not soon make anyone forget his exemplary turn in The King’s Speech or his brilliant tour de force earlier this year in The Railway Man) or Allen’s script—perhaps a combination of the two—but I never understood why Stanley was the kind of person he was, or why he was so susceptible to change on what was, when one consider it, rather flimsy data: there is a scene between Firth and Stone in a restaurant midway through the film, in which she astounds him by revealing things about him that, presumably, she could not possibly have known. I had the urge to shout out to him “have her tell you something about that woman sitting at the next table! Somebody she could not possibly know!” Maybe that’s just me, but it did seem that this extreme rationalist might have thought to make such a demand.
The other problem with the film is this: if the contest is between skepticism and faith, then the odds are not fair. Stanley, despite his obnoxious personality, may be said to fairly represent skepticism, but Sophie, the spiritualist, is a kind of straw man as a representative of faith. As a medium and conductor of séances, it is clear from the beginning that she is a fake, because that is simply what such spiritualists are, whether Stanley can find the way to unmask her or not. So it is not a true contest.
What mitigates this problem, however, is Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa, played by the superb Eileen Atkins (veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company but seen in films like Last Chance Harvey, Cold Mountain and Gosford Park). Vanessa, whose own life has been shaped by romance and whose attitude toward Stanley’s brittle rationalism is good-natured irony, is a more subtle and substantial spokesperson for the romantic position than Sophie is, and she advocates that position with a much lighter touch. The scenes with Atkins light up the film, and the extensive penultimate scene between her and Firth, in which she maneuvers the blustering Stanley into confronting his own real emotions, is the best scene in the film, and the one in which Firth, too, is at his best.
The striking scenery of the south of France is beautifully shot in 35 mm by Darius Khondji, who also was director of photography for Midnight in Paris. And in contrast to the pulsating contemporary white noise that hip-hops its way through most contemporary movies (my age again), this film’s wonderful score alternates classical music from Beethoven, Ravel and Dvořák with period pop songs like “You do Something to Me” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (the latter performed in a quirky scene with ukulele accompaniment by Linklater), in a way that reflects the serious and rational on the one hand and the silly and emotional on the other.
There are some things about the film that will inevitably provoke some viewers to make connections with Allen’s personal life: It is well known that he began his show business career as a magician before turning to comedy, and his own views about the mystical are no secret, so that reviewers will inevitably see Stanley as a clear, if unflattering, projection of himself. And, of course, the nearly 30-year age difference between Firth and Stone—an obvious incongruity never once alluded to by any character in the film—is notable. But if he is the archetypal representation of rational age and she of passionate youth, then their ages may be fitting. In any case, the film should stand on its own without viewers trying to make it into fictionalized autobiography. In the end, romance does win out in the film, as it must in a comedy. The world may still be ultimately meaningless when it comes to metaphysical questions, but love can give individual lives meaning. And that is worth hearing. You may not like everything about this film, but it is still better than the vast majority of what is out there in the theaters.