Saturday, August 16, 2014

In Theaters: MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Woody Allen. Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Hardin, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Jacki Weaver, Catherine McCormack, Erica Leerhsen, Jeremy Shamos, Ute Lemper. (PG-13, 97 mins)

The annual visit from Woody Allen finds the great filmmaker firmly in "pleasant trifle" mode with MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT. A year after directing Cate Blanchett to an Oscar for the devastating BLUE JASMINE, Allen goes light and breezy in another attempt to recapture the unexpected blockbuster success of 2011's out-of-nowhere MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.  MAGIC is certainly enjoyable but is yet another effort that falls squarely in the middle, along with other diverting-at-the-time-but-forgettable-after trifles like SCOOP (2006), the overrated VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008), WHATEVER WORKS (2009), and YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER (2010). Aside from the occasional MATCH POINT (2005) or BLUE JASMINE, Allen's work at this point more or less functions as comfort food, a reminder than even with the ever-shifting and unpredictable ways of cinematic finance and distribution, those Windsor font opening credits with the alphabetically-listed cast, accompanied by a scratchy old jazz or big band standard (in this case, Leo Reisman & His Orchestra's 1929 version of Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me") are always there to remind us that some things haven't changed if Woody's still cranking them out year after year (incredibly, 1981 was the last year without a new Allen film). Even when he's coasting and repeating himself, a new Woody Allen movie is--almost, other than, say, 2012's TO ROME WITH LOVE, one of his worst films--always welcome.

In 1928 Berlin, world-famous, mysterious Oriental magician Wei Ling Soo astounds a captive audience with his repertoire of tricks and illusions. Backstage, he's revealed to be disguised Brit Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a snobbish misanthrope who considers most of his fan base to be uncultured rubes. An expert medium and spirit world-debunker outside of his Wei Ling Soo persona, Stanley is persuaded by his friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney, the Roddy McDowall of his generation) to accompany him to the French Riviera to investigate an American medium who's enthralled the region with her uncanny abilities. The medium is Kalamazoo, MI native Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who's captured the hearts of the wealthy Catledge family and is engaged to be married to scion Brice (Hamish Linklater), a ukulele-strumming romantic who serenades her regularly and promises her all that money can buy. Stanley is suspicious from the start, but as Sophie's ability to know some of Stanley's most private secrets as well as those of his beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) becomes apparent, Stanley goes from sneering and dismissive to a smitten believer, even after rebuffing Sophie's advances since he's engaged to Olivia (Catherine McCormack), who's back home in London.

Magic, mysticism and fantasy are not new subjects to Allen. He's covered them in various ways in films like THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), the "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of NEW YORK STORIES (1989), ALICE (1990), THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION (2001), SCOOP, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and TO ROME WITH LOVE, to name a few. To that end, there's not really anything particularly new or noteworthy about MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT.  As expected, Stone is as appealing a presence as ever, and while she initially seems miscast, Allen wisely takes that and uses it to her character's advantage as a transplanted Midwesterner who doesn't really belong with the high society on the Cote d'Azur, but is lovingly accepted anyway by the smothering Brice and his mother Grace (Jacki Weaver). Firth has a good time playing a droll, acid-tongued grouch, and just when you think Allen is going too schmaltzy with his character, he has something happen that pulls him back into being the bitter crank he's been for the previous hour. But these are characters and situations we've seen in any number of Allen's previous 45 films as a writer/director. For its first half, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT is witty and often quite amusing, but then I was reminded of his surprise 2000 hit SMALL TIME CROOKS (about once a decade in the years since his commercial heyday ended in the mid '80s, Allen has a breakout smash that gets embraced by more moviegoers than usual), which spent half of its running time as a hilarious comedy of errors about an ineptly-plotted heist only to switch gears and morph into another sappy, analytical relationship comedy between Allen and Tracey Ullman. Similarly, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT bogs down considerably once Stanley believes in Sophie's abilities and she expresses her feelings for him. Do we need another Woody Allen movie with a younger woman falling for a man 30 years her senior? I suppose it could be worse--Allen could've cast himself as Stanley--and Firth doesn't look 53 years old, but Allen's older man/younger woman motif has been one of the more blatantly self-referential and increasingly peculiar tropes of his filmography. MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT is diverting late summer entertainment, Firth and Stone are fine, the locations, production design, and period detail are terrific, and Atkins is a delight as Aunt Vanessa, but like most of Allen's output over the last decade or two, there's an unavoidable sense of familiarity, like he's just shuffling pages of random older scripts together and cobbling new movies out of previously explored ideas.

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