Woody Allen’s films have something of a cult following. Like other directors before him, his name has become more than just a signature on his work; it has become a brand. The recognisable combination of white-font-on-black-background and easy jazz music has the ability to greet fans of his work with a sense of spellbinding wonder as they recline in their seats, ready to be immersed in the latest Woody Allen. Unfortunately, however, his latest release struggles to live up to expectations.
In Magic in the Moonlight, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is a magician famous amongst his peers for his arrogant metaphysical pessimism and his penchant for debunking tricksters who claim to have “real” spiritual powers or connections. Prompted by his friend (Simon McBurney), Stanley travels to the French Riviera to shame a young and beautiful clairvoyant (Emma Stone) into admitting that her psychic “abilities” are nothing but a scam.
Though there are parts of Magic which are commendable, such as its cinematography and the central performances, it is a film which struggles to leave any lasting impression on its audience. The plot in particular suffers, leaving you unconvinced of its events. It is not funny enough to be a comedy (not that the jokes are not funny, there simply are not enough of them), nor does it display a strong enough development of its characters to be considered a drama. Genre specification is not particularly important to me; in fact, I welcome genre-hybridity – however, Allen has not provided large enough portions of any particular technique to give Magic any essence. It is a film of neither/nors rather than either/ors; the audience leaves unaffected, having struggled to engage with the film.
The strongest elements of Magic are Emma Stone, the cinematography, and France. Like most things in the film, Stone’s character is underdeveloped, and Sophie does not have much to say on the metaphysical subject she is meant to be representing. However, Stone manages to make her character Magic’s surest presence. In part, praise must be given to costume designer Sonia Grande’s beautiful wardrobe for Sophie, but moreover, we are witness to Stone mastering yet another style of comedy in yet another style of filmmaking. Her performance in Magic predicts a trajectory of success in future works.
To give due credit, one thing we are convinced of in Magic is its visuals. 1928’s France looks elegant and rich shot on 35-mm film by Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love). The pastel colours and translucent lighting achieves a classicism that emerges as a naturally soft and antiquated beauty. This high elegance of classicism is potentially the film’s biggest draw in scenes of spectacular visuals, such as when Firth and Stone drive along the same Riviera coast as Cary Grant and Grace Kelly did sixty years ago, and when the camera holds a strong one-shot in the film’s denouement, we are finally made certain of the presence of a controlled aesthetic. However, one could debate whether Allen’s instinctive classicism regarding the film’s themes, characters and mise-en-scène was a thought-out technical execution or a reliance on old gimmicks.
Magic in the Moonlight may not live up to the precedent set by certain previous entries into Allen’s canon, but after seeing him produce films like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine in recent years, I am not ready to give up on the filmmaker yet.