Years ago, the former head of production at United Artists, Steven Bach, wrote that studios loved to work with Woody Allen. They knew they wouldn’t make a lot of money, but they’d come out OK. They could rely on Allen to shoot the script he said he would shoot, bring the film in on time and on budget, and the work always brought prestige.
You can see all that in Allen’s latest picture, Magic in the Moonlight.
The film looks crisp and polished. It’s beautifully crafted; there’s just nothing to it. It’s fluff, but from the director of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan and another dozen magnificent films, a bit of fluff isn’t much, and it’s not enough.
Allen’s movies are turning into travelogues. They’ve gone to London, Barcelona, Paris, and now the South of France. Magic in the Moonlight makes you want to book a flight right now – especially if the Allen time machine can take you to Provence in the ‘20s. He sets the picture in gorgeous houses with views of the Mediterranean, lots of trees and gardens lush with flowers. To get there, the characters ride in magnificent ‘20s roadsters and touring cars. The men look great in white trousers and tennis sweaters with red and blue trim; the women sport fabulous dresses and marvelous hats. It’s all without a hint of serious danger or disruption in their lives.
Woody Allen has never noticed poverty, but here there’s not even a hint of mild middle class struggle. It’s upper class all the way, and the satire – if there is any – is so gentle it barely makes a ripple on the impeccable surface of these neat and elegant lives. Allen films it – as he films everything in recent years – in shimmering yellows and golds.
The story opens with a Chinese magician called Wei Ling Soo doing a couple of elaborate tricks onstage. Backstage, he grumps at his assistants, takes off his makeup and he’s just a British white guy named Stanley, and played by Colin Firth. It turns out that Stanley the magician is ferociously hostile to psychics and mediums and all manner of spiritualist fakery. When he hears about a young woman psychic doing readings and séances, and dazzling the neighbors near his aunt’s place in Provence, off he goes to unmask the baloney and ship this young impostor back to America where she came from.
So, Magic in the Moonlight is about illusion and reality. You can tell that by the title and by the repetitions of Cole Porter’s lovely “You Do Something to Me” with the line “Do do that voodoo that you do so well.”
In the world of films about the difference between actuality and illusion, though, this movie looks puny. Allen himself did it much better in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Colin Firth plays Stanley a bit arch and overstated. It’s by design, but it makes for a movie that sounds like it doesn’t even believe in itself.
The underlying questions in the film are not lightweight at all. Stanley insists the world is rational and that there’s no such thing as spirit, and absolutely no such thing as a god. He doesn’t really believe in love, although something is cooking with Sophie the psychic (Emma Stone).
Yet in the face of these immense possibilities, Magic in the Moonlight feels trivial, and worse, it feels safe.
Woody Allen can still drive a comic nail into snobbish pretention – a rich American woman says seriously that something is “the talk of the Cote d’azur,” and when that woman’s son serenades Sophie with his ukulele, it’s magnificently awful.
But Allen’s great comic lines used to lead into ever-more complex situations and in this film they simply dead end.