The creative genius is a flittering enigma, one which finds itself manifested in the artist only during moments of complete openness and honesty. The writer has many ways of handling this enigma – ways of challenging it, working with it, plucking it from the ether – but he must ultimately accept a stance of vulnerability in order to fully receive inspiration and turn out effective work. Of course, most find this a very hard thing to do, for we often fear what we’ll learn about ourselves once all defenses are laid down and the darker undercurrents of our existences rise to the surface. But self-realization is a necessary and integral step to take on the pathway to living a fulfilling life, as is self-acceptance, and the people who take such steps often run the risk of disapproval from those around them.
When Woody Allen took this vital step to self-realization over twenty years ago, he instigated a devastating whirlwind of repulsion and loathing, marrying the adopted daughter of his longtime girlfriend and thus casting an irrevocable net of discomfort over the entirety of his body of work – a filmography which had, from the beginnings of Bananas (1971) to the ingenuity of Annie Hall (1977) to the depth of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), established him as one of the most prolific and highly esteemed of American filmmakers. His career and persona had been historically marked by neuroticism, with works such as Interiors (1978) and Manhattan (1979) pointing towards an inescapable sense of nihilism and inner instability that threatened to break out in a Freudian tidal wave of unleashed suppressions – but it was the singular, consummate act which generated an iconoclastic sect of anti-Allen moviegoers, and to this day there are many who refuse to pay for admission to or even view his films.
I’m sympathetic to this stance – it is hard to enjoy something like Magic in the Moonlight (2014), Allen’s latest feature, when it is watched with the knowledge of its director’s questionable moral conduct in mind. Yet I am more sympathetic to the stance which states that art and artists must be appreciated on their own level, free from any interfering factors regarding the artist’s nonprofessional character – even though such personal elements can often enhance one’s appreciation of the artistic work. If I were to consider the character of Picasso every time I view one of his paintings, or of Richard Wagner every time I listen to his music, I would be seriously deprived of a broadening intellectual experience – the realization of which, I feel, outweighs any objections to morality, no matter how valid those objections may be.
With this in mind, I can say with no hesitation that Magic in the Moonlight is a beautiful movie, both a savory visual treat and a touching elucidation of human uncertainty and faith in the face of a mystifying universe – something that stands somewhere near Midnight in Paris as a triumphant late-career exercise in entertainment for our friend Mr. Allen.
Set on the French Riviera in the year 1928, it tells the story of Stanley (played by Colin Firth) – a.k.a. Wing Ling Soo, a professional illusionist who specializes in the debunking of clairvoyants and mystics who seek patronage from willing and gullible aristocrats. When his old friend Howard (Simon McBurney), a fellow “man of science”, and a fellow illusionist, comes to him with the request that he unmask the practices of a particularly convincing and enchanting clairvoyant (Emma Stone), Stanley is all too willing to comply. But as he bears witness to the young woman’s incredible abilities, he begins to question his own steadfast logic as to the practicality and gloom of existence, and ultimately falls under the sway of this seemingly authentic creature and her freeing attitudes towards life.
One can hear even in the plot description how this film may be expressive of some later-year stocktaking by the aging Allen, as he reconsiders his longtime conviction that life is marked by unrelenting misery, only to be concluded with the helplessness of death. Indeed, Allen seems to have been breathing more easily for the last ten years – with Magic, he continues his belated Grand Tour, hopping from the slick worldliness of London in Match Point (2005) to the steamy earthiness of Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008), to the glorious fantasy of Midnight in Paris (2011) to the haphazardly strung together tourist trap that is To Rome with Love (2012). All of these films have indicated a rather relaxed streak, trailing behind decades of heavy-handed morality plays which did much to manifest Allen’s latent insecurities, even as they embraced those insecurities with a humor that was sublime in its irony and intelligence.
Since his controversial marriage in 1992, one can see a broadening flexibility in regards to subject matter within Woody’s work, and it is significant that of the ten films he has directed over the past ten years, Allen has appeared in only two of them (of the thirty-five movies he directed prior to 2004, he appeared in all but five). It would appear that he no longer finds himself his most fascinating subject as a filmmaker, and I believe that this newfound ability to grow out of the self has resulted in some of his most easygoing, if occasionally less incisive, writing.
This is true of Magic in the Moonlight, which contains some of the warmest and most charming humor I’ve seen in any of Allen’s films, but which also tends to buckle at its own editorial foundation. Allen knows how to write a movie better than most, yet he continues to suffer from a lack of polish in the final construction of his script, and this film jolts awkwardly in places from abrupt editing. His writing can be blunt even as it is uncommonly glib; individual scenes possess the fluidity of good theater, but it is the overall craftsmanship of the thing that fails to spell out a sense of structural integrity, and the occasionally poor arrangement of scenes stands in clashing contrast to the general seamlessness of the material.
Allen also owes a lot to his cinematographer, Darius Khondji – this is their fourth collaboration together, in which the great cameraman once again proves himself marvelously capable of capturing the lushly colorful glow that our imaginations and the movies tend to bestow upon the lives of the gloriously rich from generations past. His depiction of the Riviera is lovely, if no special feat (how can one possibly photograph those bluffs and mansions with anything short of success?), and he plunges more fully into the visual luxuries afforded by film stock and vintage cameras than he has before. With this film, he and Woody Allen have taken a step further in achieving a sophisticated contemporary evocation of classic filmmaking, and if Marion Cotillard was a shimmering fragment of the past brought to life in Midnight in Paris, their second project, then Emma Stone is an enchanting life force here, undeniably present in this period piece.
Speaking of whom, I find it hard to describe how perfect a film this is for the likes of Ms. Stone – she was made to play characters such as this one, lovely and light and funny, and it is a great pity that there aren’t more movies of this sort made nowadays. Had she lived in 1928, or 1932, or 1941, she would have found ample work suitable to her disposition both on the stage and in the movies; she is not only a comedienne worthy of Lombard, but a fine actress to boot. Movies are better when she’s in them, and this movie takes the extra step of asking that the audience notice how much more she deserves in the way of respect – both as a person and as a movie star.
Colin Firth is equally suited to this stylistic sensibility in filmmaking – he is an English gentleman who possesses a great adroitness in technique and disposition that mixes performance with sincere emotional vulnerability, making for a sublime marriage of Allen’s classic neurotic protagonist and the behavioral trappings of a player from classic drawing room comedy. The other performers, though far less focused upon, also achieve this balance between archetype and personal acting ability quite well: Hamish Linklater is perfect as the ukulele-strumming, “Anyone for tennis?”-type from American theater of the 1920s; Jacki Weaver is good as the briefly acknowledged, dithering, but sweet wealthy widow; and Eileen Atkins is completely on point as the wise and witty elderly aunt.
This is romance in the old tradition – a delightful, tender integration of carefree elegance and purposeful thought, something that sets out with the most innocent of intentions and ends up speaking to the heart. It is surprising to consider that Woody Allen wrote this movie – it possesses a graciousness that is uncommon in his work, matched with a maturity that goes beyond sophisticated thought and gestures toward emotional harmony. Truly, I believe he may be riding on a golden wing, high above the altitude of common opinion and truth, but thriving nonetheless in his own rarified daydream. For his sake, I’m glad that the nightmares are ending; for ours, I’m grateful that he continues to feel the need to share these daydreams with us. If we can bear the compromise between morality and movie, I think there’s still much we can learn, and enjoy, from this man.