Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review: "Magic in the Moonlight"

Director: Woody Allen
Runtime: 100 minutes

A movie may show a character acting in an unpleasant manner without being unpleasant itself. It's a lesson you'd think Woody Allen would know by now, given that he's made nearly 50 features. Everyone has been twisting themselves into knots wondering if they can separate Mr. Allen's personal life from his art. This is an important conversation, but it's one that's been taking place for months now. It shouldn't be brushed aside; it's far too sensitive a matter to simply be ignored. Yet rather than continue wringing hands over the separation of art and artist, it's now time to look at how badly Mr. Allen has blurred the lines between character and tone in his latest offering, Magic in the Moonlight.

The character in question is Stanley (Colin Firth), an acclaimed stage magician (albeit one who performs in yellow face as Wei Ling Soo) who enjoys debunking mystics and mediums claiming to be the real deal. From the moment Stanley removes his disguise backstage, he is demanding and off-putting. He has just as little patience for psychics as he does for missed music cues, and he wastes no time in berating those who fall short of his standards. 

At the behest of his old friend Howard (Simon McBurney), however, Stanley decides to take some time off to debunk a new arrival on the psychic scene. Her name is Sophie (Emma Stone), and she's currently in the progress of trying to sneak her way into the vast fortunes of a rich family in the south of France. What follows is an expected series of developments, mostly built around Stanley's questioning of his faith in science and logic. 

Yet even at his lowest point, Stanley remains a thoroughly obnoxious figure, and the film around him starts to sour quite early as a result. Stanley seems to have been modeled - intentionally or not - on the personality of Richard Dawkins, which is so militant in its insistence on science that it manifests as condescending rudeness towards anyone not 100% on the same wavelength. Yes, he's right, but does he have to be such an ass about it?

Firth and the rest of the cast are, at the very least, not sleepwalking through their roles. No one's going to win awards for this one, but everyone seems like they're trying to put some actual magic into what is ultimately a blah story. Despite the almost 30 year age gap, Firth and Stone have a few nice moments together (which is helped by them being at odds almost the entire way through) and a few exchanges here and there are amusing. Eileen Atkins ultimately walks away with the movie as Stanley's aunt, even as she's mostly used as a wry sounding board for her nephew's ranting. 

Where Magic in the Moonlight finally sinks itself is when it refuses to give Stanley any legitimate comeuppance. There's a point in the third act where the movie seems ready to end with Stanley where he deserves to be, but then another 15 minutes roll along and the "charming" ending we're supposed to smile act comes (literally) knocking. Stanley's arrogant bluster is often too caustic to find humorous, and he changes so little that he (and the film) don't come close to earning what happens at the conclusion. 

Though I understand why some are now uncomfortable watching Allen's movies in light of the past few months, even the absence of such scandal would do little to help here. With Magic in the Moonlight, one can separate the art from the artist or bind them together warts and all. Neither position will change the curmudgeonly quality that pervades this lazily directed romp that lacks even an ounce of magic.

Grade: C-

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