Woody Allen has made a movie so bland, derivative of his earlier work and lazy, that it’s possible to wonder just what the man believes. Is he, like Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) so immersed in his own ideas that even the slightest alteration of personal habits makes for, at best, an uncomfortable experience, and at worst, tortured drudgery?
Or is he like Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to take the world on its own terms? If you’ve seen more than two Woody Allen films, you know the answer: He’s immersed in his own world at the expense of everything else, and he’s for damn sure not facing anything on its own terms.
Magic in the Moonlight isn’t so much fresh cream as rotten curds. Take, for example, the yellowface. Stanley, a famous magician, performs nightly in character as Wei Ling Soo, which is presumably a reference to William Robinson, a magician who performed as a character named Chung Ling Soo. Magic in the Moonlight takes place sometime after the Great War but before World War II, so sure, yellowface was common—or at least not considered in poor taste. But guess what? It’s 2014, and it’s in really poor taste. At least Wei Long Soo doesn’t speak in character in the movie.
Then there’s one of Allen’s favorite tropes, the May-December romance. Firth is 53 and Stone, 25. Ginormous age disparities have been in movies since forever, but it’s particularly creepy given Allen’s history of marrying his ex-girlfriend’s adopted daughter, whom he knew when she was a teenager.
Maybe it’s unfair to bring Allen’s personal life into criticism of his work. But what of the work? Right, the plot: Magic in the Moonlight concerns Stanley being engaged by his friend Howard (Simon McBurney) to uncover the tricks of Sophie, a penniless, alleged soothsayer and mystic who’s about to marry into a rich family.
Stanley, a noted skeptic and atheist (in other words, a stand-in for Allen), thinks Sophie, an uneducated but beautiful creature (in other words, most women in most Woody Allen movies) is a con artist. Of course he falls in love with her. And of course, she is a con artist. But that doesn’t matter because Stanley is proved right, and therefore smarter than everyone; he gets to unmask the woman as a fraud and gets to fuck his cake, too.
The whole thing is so distasteful you may not notice Stanley and Sophie don’t spend much time together on screen, or get to know each other, or have chemistry. That’s the reason I bring up Allen’s weird misogyny—there’s no good reason Sophie should be such a naïf. The women in his movies generally get shit on (Melinda and Melinda, Hollywood Ending, Match Point, Husbands and Wives) or are dumber than the men (Manhattan, Alice, Blue Jasmine) or are so terrible it defies explanation (Rachel McAdams’ character in Midnight in Paris). There is the rare (and wonderful) Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters, which makes the men the doofuses, but those types of stories are conspicuously fewer.
That’s a long way of saying even a featherweight piece of fluff like Magic in the Moonlight betrays an underbelly of ugliness. Stone is working with Allen on the movie he’s currently shooting. Will she be allowed to grow up in that one?
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT
Directed by Woody Allen
With Firth, Stone and Marcia Gay Harden
UA DeVargas 6