(This film review of “Magic in the Moonlight” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 28 August 2014.)
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver and Simon McBurney
It is a testament to Woody Allen’s enduring influence as a Jewish film-maker that we Jews closely follow each of his releases, even when there are no Jewish concepts, themes or characters. There have been flashier and more popular Jewish film-makers (Steven Spielberg, also known for his Jewish philanthropy), grittier (Sidney Lumet), possibly funnier (Mel Brooks), possibly more accomplished (Billy Wilder), definitely stranger (Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick), “cooler” (Joel Coen), more political (Milos Forman, Otto Preminger) and “artier” (Darren Aronofsky).
And yet, Woody Allen stands at the top of almost everyone’s list of the great Jewish film directors of all time. This is partly due to his three roles – he writes, directs and acts – so that we have a strong image of Woody Allen the screen character. He undoubtedly is also one of the best screenwriters ever, with 73 screen writing credits, 16 Oscar nominations and 3 Oscar wins. It’s also due to hard work and living a long and productive life: at an age when most men are long retired or dead – he will be 79 in December – he continues to produce a film each year.
Broadly, Woody Allen’s films fall into five broad categories, with numerous overlaps and side themes: early slapstick (“Sleepers”), romantic nostalgia (“Annie Hall”), drama (“Blue Jasmine”, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”), light mystery (“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”) and – most recently – European adventures (“Midnight in Paris”, “Vicki Christina Barcelona”).
Opening this week, “Magic in the Moonlight” is Allen’s latest, falling into the latter category of a light, romantic European adventure, including magic themes (long an Allen favourite). This is “middling” Woody Allen: his fans will insist on seeing it, and many will be swept up by the characters, British-style drawing room comedy (George Bernard Shaw, where are you?), great production design and sumptuous European settings. Others may be frustrated by the film’s unwillingness to present enough substance for us to really care what happens and why.
“Magic in the Moonlight” opens in “Berlin 1928”, at a theatrical magic show run by Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), who uses an on-stage Chinese persona (“Wei Ling Soo”). He makes elephants disappear and transports himself across the stage from locked boxes to chairs. Although the action quickly shifts elsewhere, here Allen is hinting at tragedies to come, in the style of the film “Cabaret”. But Allen has other things on his mind: Stanley is enlisted by an old school friend, Howard Burkan (delightful British actor Simon McBurney, most recognised for his role in “Friends with Money”), to help de-bunk the “spiritualist” claims by a young American woman, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). As a purveyor of magic himself, Stanley is a dour rationalist who specialises in un-masking fake “mediums”, although secretly – we discover – he desires to find hidden and unexplained meanings.
They travel to the Côte d’Azur, where a variety of characters have collected: Stanley’s ageing aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), and the Catledges, a rich American family which has become enamoured of Sophie. There’s mother Grace (Jacki Weaver, again sporting a flawless American accent), daughter Olivia and her husband, and son Brice (Hamish Linklater) who has been smitten with Sophie, and insists on playing a ukulele as a means of wooing her. They wear tennis whites, go out on yachts and generally live a life of naive and semi-cultured ease.
The core of “Magic in the Moonlight”, however, is the growing relationship between Sophie and Stanley, and the results are mixed. While Stanley is moderately successful, sophisticated and experienced, he has little emotional intelligence and is a self-confessed misanthrope. By contrast, the younger Sophie is practical and exudes a natural charm, “opening up” the buttoned down Stanley in ways that shock and surprise him. Not surprisingly, they fall in love, in fits and starts. Colin Firth is one of the great British actors of our time, but at age 53, he is twice Emma Stone’s age. Thus the film also reflects a favourite but less-than-savoury Woody Allen scenario: the younger woman with the older man.
Allen fills the film with sharp one-liners and quotes from Nietschke about the nature of man, which often appear to be stage-like (did people really speak that way?), and he knows how never to over-extend a scene. There are two major plot point surprises, although for me one of them fell flat. Allen’s films rarely are the cause of “life or death” concerns – even the popular “Midnight in Paris” had very little emotional “weight”. “Magic in the Moonlight” fits into the fairy floss category: sweet and nice to look at, but little to remember once it is gone.