By Simon Miraudo
August 25, 2014
Magic in the Moonlight sees Woody Allen putting the least amount of effort into enchanting audiences at a time when he really needs to work a little harder for their love. The public perception of Allen takes a trip on the Ferris wheel each year, and though he’s coming off an Oscar-winner in Blue Jasmine, the re-airing of his hugely questionable relationship with Mia Farrow‘s daughter Dylan casts a pall over his latest piece (if not his entire career). Yet, he carries on his merry way with total disinterest in any surrounding controversy – including a more recent one: that he neglects to cast black actors – making whatever he was planning anyway. In this case, it’s an all-white, Jazz age class comedy with a 28-year gap between its romantic leads.
Of absolutely no consequence, Magic in the Moonlight stars Colin Firth as Stanley, a narcissistic, pessimistic illusionist and spiritualist debunker, challenged by his old friend Howard (Simon McBurney) to out Emma Stone‘s American clairvoyant Sophie Baker as a con-woman. She’s moved in with an eager-to-believe family of millionaires in the South of France. The matriarch, played by Jacki Weaver, just wants to know if her late husband was faithful to her, while her swooning son, Hamish Linklater, simply wants to serenade Sophie. Then, 97 minutes pass. You’ll struggle to recall the name of any one character, or maybe even the jokes, but you may still feel you had a grand old time.
Allen’s script easily establishes its game, and sets the scene for a fine farce indeed. However, instead of characters being paired in combinations to produce the maximum number of sparks, they each circle around one another like satellites. After initial introductions, Stanley barely interacts with anyone beside Sophie, Howard, and his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), the latter of whom is isolated entirely from the rest of the cast. Sophie’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is just sort of … there and Linklater’s preppy rube Brice hardly shares a moment with Stanley, his rival for Sophie’s affections and mirror image. The feature’s big revelations are relayed unfussilly, and early, to ensure the undercutting of any potential tension, as if it was being made specifically for viewers who get especially worried in rom-coms where the leads don’t initially get along.
At least we have the easy charm of Firth and Stone to fall back on. Firth often seems to have trouble calibrating the volume of his voice, but he looks like he’s enjoying himself, and why wouldn’t he, opposite the big-eyed ingénue Stone, as beguiling as ever? Allen would have to also actively plot against his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, to make the Côte d’Azur unromantic. Some frames appear as if they were painted by Monet, except populated by boilerplate Allen neurotics, each armed with a handful of nice quips. Magic in the Moonlight isn’t the first film to see Allen’s existential, realist despair come up against the universe’s capacity to surprise and delight and suggest hidden depths. It is, sad to say, one of his few films to not frequently enough surprise or delight or suggest hidden depths. It’s the kind of movie that just happens, regardless of whether or not anyone is watching it. Allen made it, and now it exists, and that’s the end of his contract with the viewer. Wanting more from it, like wanting more from him, is expecting too much.
Magic in the Moonlight arrives in Australian cinemas August 28, 2014.