After his signature white-text against black-background credits sequence runs through its motions, Woody Allen begins his latest comedy, “Magic in the Moonlight,” with a shock of sound and sight.
An external view of a large, lavish theater fills the screen and classical music booms over the soundtrack. With gusto, the veteran filmmaker cuts inside the theater and spends a few moments among the audience members, soaking up the golds and reds and the period-piece costumes, emphasizing the elaborate showmanship of a bygone era of live entertainment.
We are in late-1920s Europe and what unfolds is something like Allen’s version of a backward, spikily-funny “Great Gatsby” reworking, stocked with his requisite existential torment. His fleet new picture follows middle-aged British illusionist Stanley (Colin Firth), whose world-renowned act as a Chinese magician called Wei Ling Soo has given him the authority to dispel scam artists who use purported magic or psychic power to predict the future, connect with the spirit world, etc.
But, on a seemingly standard hoax-uncovering mission to the Côte d’Azur in France at the request of an old friend (Simon McBurney), the seasoned witch whistleblower is bewildered when he encounters a young American woman and psychic, Sophie (Emma Stone), who defies all that the unrelentingly bitter and nihilistic performer holds ideologically dear.
“Magic” feels structurally and narratively vital in a way that the filmmaker’s dullest recent output hasn’t—don’t buy the hype on supposed late-period Woody gems like last year’s “Blue Jasmine” or 2005’s “Match Point,” which build to tired, unremarkable proclamations less tragic than lazily cynical.
Those films’ accumulated thematic impact is that of all-too self-seriously and cartoonishly asserting that life is, in the end, empty and meaningless, and that people are in hot pursuit of their own destructive self interest and little more.
However, Allen’s new film opts to instead flip the formula and take the things we should already know as givens: the pat cynicism that concludes those distasteful previous films is taken a lot less seriously as Firth’s Stanley begins the film foolishly resolved that such nihilistic viewpoints are undeniable.
In fact, in a recent interview, Firth said “The trouble with comedy is that it doesn’t have anything to fall back on. If somebody doesn’t like it, it looks cheap… when it doesn’t work, it’s spectacular. It’s like a soufflé collapsing.” Allen’s latest film certainly does not droop or collapse, as Firth aforementioned but instead supports itself with interesting dialogue and riveting visuals.
The film proceeds from there, contrasting this cold disposition with relative perspectives of generosity and warmth, almost daring the haughty curmudgeon to have a heart and embrace, on some level, life’s beauty.
In the “Gatsby” vein of things, instead of trusting in the titular figure of idealization’s veracity and integrity for all of the narrative until being shocked when he’s finally revealed as a fraud, we spend “Magic in the Moonlight” simultaneously accepting the distinct possibility that Sophie is a promoter of falsities while helplessly being charmed by the modest but admirable facets of her character.
These foregone narrative/thematic assumptions, laid out before us with self-awareness, are then twisted, questioned and thoughtfully weighed as the film wears on.
Ultimately, these reconfigurations transform what could have been a redundantly bleak effort from an artistically-hoarse filmmaker or a conventional romance drawn from recently overexposed classic American literature as a sly, expressive and strangely new contemplation of life’s expanding possibilities.
In an excellent performance, Emma Stone furthers the film’s trend of expectational defiance. All of the men in the film are superficially hypnotized by her physical beauty and seeming divine gifts, but this is a female character unlike any the director has written in some time.
As if to self-reflexively comment on the rightful negative critical response toward his misguided and often downright offensive cinematic treatment of women in recent years, Stone’s character is a woman pronouncedly unsatisfied with being valued primarily for the services she can provide her male counterparts.
Her Sophie isn’t the film’s limp visual plaything to ogle nor is she a whiny or shrill nag but a presence in the film of equal value and enjoyment to behold as Firth. (She tellingly gets many of the best zingers; her sarcastic quip about the magician displaying her with the same presentation as his elephants is hilarious and cutting.)
Another unfortunate characteristic of Allen’s most recent output has been his sometime tendency to stereotype and develop character in broad strokes, relying on hastily-sketched slapstick approximations of reality rather than the finely-wrought individuals bathed in ambiguity that defined his casts of characters from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. “Moonlight” instead boasts a periphery of rich characters, which, though they may occupy distinct social classes, eschew easy definition and dismissal. Eileen Atkins as Firth’s aunt and primary parental figure, and Jeremy Shamos as George, a member of the family to whom Stone is possibly shamming, are particular stand-outs in performance and written conception, adding detail and ultimately bolstering our understanding of the film’s world.
Finally, a heroine fit to bite back against the writer’s worrisomely skeezy tendencies. Allen’s recent career interest in stylistic expression and evocative camera work is also to be appreciated, a quality continued from the otherwise compromised, messy “Blue Jasmine.”
In that film we are struck by a certain uneasy, constantly unsettled authorial presence and Woody almost woozily absorbs this tenor of wandering discontentment into his visual palette, his camera swooping, panning, serving as an active reflection of the circular, repetitive nature of his characters’ tough realizations and subsequent avoidances of difficult truths and discomfiting permanences.
“Magic in the Moonlight” finds him continuing interest in evoking his major emotional/thematic concerns visually, and this time in a more genuine and thoughtful work.
The film makes complex use of widescreen composition, breaking open the tighter close-ups and agile movement of his previous effort to present scenes in busy jazz clubs (a genre hilariously referred to as “hot music”) and expansive seaside vistas; even the image of Firth and Stone talking in a lush garden begins at a comfortable, observant distance, with much greenery and negative space filling the frame.
This is Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji’s invitation to search for meaning in a large and mysterious world, patiently holding a long, wide shot so that we may latch onto a piece of Stanley and Sophie’s quest for purpose and reason in the thick of the unknown.
The stunning compositions also underscore the film as being set in a changing cultural era, as preferred popular entertainments and societal fixations transition from the creaky, deceptive to the more intimate, urgent (much is made metaphorically of performance and artifice), and the movie’s location in the south of France indicates we take notice of the unoccupied stretches of natural beauty that will, in a decade or less, be stage to the conflicts of World War II.
To pleasure and gaze on these painterly and roomy frames is to subtly engage with the substantive tug-of-war at “Magic’s” center: hope and despair, desire and futility, the antiquated and the modern, truth and illusion.