Review: Magic in the Moonlight (2014)
Director: Woody Allen
Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Eileen Atkins & Simon McBurney
Runtime: 97 min // Certificate: 12a
Even the very worst Woody Allen films tend to have something going on beneath the surface – yes, even Melinda and Melinda – but Magic in the Moonlight, by my count the man’s 288th film, might well be the dullest, most humourless and intellectually barren piece he’s even written.
Set on the French Riviera in the 1920s, the film tells the story of full-time magician and part-time debunker of spiritualist nonsense Stanley Crawford (Firth; The King’s Speech), after he is asked by his old friend Howard (McBurney; Golden Compass) to help him prove that a young American clairvoyant by the name of Sophie Baker (Stone; The Amazing Spider-Man) is a fraud. Unable to resist, Stanley sets out to expose Sophie for the charlatan she is, only to find himself becoming enamoured with her after being convinced that she might just be genuine after all. A classic Allen age-gap romance and some blunt cynicism later, the film ends and the audience is left wondering what on Earth the point of it all was.
Unlike Blue Jasmine, which dealt with difficult themes and felt like a throwback to the Allen of Interiors and Hannah and Her Sisters, Magic in the Moonlight is a fluffy, light-hearted affair that is more concerned with humour than drama. Boasting some admittedly gorgeous cinematography, it is another example of Allen viewing European locations like the author of a travel brochure while spending absolutely no time whatsoever developing either his characters of the story. It is a film that takes a very crude premise and runs it ragged for just over 90 minutes – a far cry from the thought-provoking and tightly-written genius of Allen’s best work.
The problem here isn’t necessarily that the story is dull or that the characters – particularly Stone’s Sophie – are defined by singular characteristics, but that the script simply isn’t funny. I managed to muster up a few pity laughs, but a combination of lazy gags and some truly awful delivery from Colin Firth, who seems to completely misread the tone of the piece at every possible opportunity, makes for an experience that is actually rather embarrassing to watch. Remember how To Rome with Love felt like the final death cries of a writer who had long since run out of ideas? Well, Magic in the Moonlight is just like that, only ten times worse.
There’s actually very little to say about this, and that’s what’s most disappointing about it. Even when Allen makes a clunker, there are normally a few decent ideas about which one can talk, but because the dialogue is so obtuse, even the “rationality vs. spirituality” argument that drives the plot wears thin well before the first act is over. Furthermore, the Sophie character might well be the worst female role Allen has ever created, and that is most certainly saying something. Not only is she manipulative and potentially fraudulent, but she’s also utterly subservient to Stanley who is about two sarcastic remarks away from being abusive, thus rendering the film’s final scene nothing short of wretched.
Witless, dull and quite poorly acted by all involved (but especially Firth), Magic in the Moonlight is quite simply one of the worst films Allen has ever made. Whatever charm a film like Midnight in Paris might have possessed is here replaced by something altogether more hateful, and it serves as nothing more than a reminder of just how far the man responsible for genuine masterpieces like Annie Hall and Love and Death has fallen in recent years. If Blue Jasmine was yet another “return to form”, then Magic in the Moonlight is a thumping return to what we’ve all come to expect from Allen since the turn of the century.
I never thought I’d say this, but it might finally be time for Woody to quit while he’s ahead, lest he continue – to quote Stewart Lee – decreasing the quality of his own obituary…