Woody Allen does not read the reviews of his films. Some people think he should, but I think it is a good thing. Only a film director utterly unaware of the ‘narrative’ other people are making up for him – early funny ones, great middle period, the grim Bergman period (totally underappreciated), the lazy later ones and the recent return to form (which seems to have happened at least three times) – would have a confidence to release films so set in their own unique ways as You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and To Rome With Love either side of something as crowd-pleasing as Midnight in Paris. Some of Woody Allen’s best films are simple elaborations on themes already tackled elsewhere – the grim but brilliant Another Woman and the carefree musical Everyone Says I Love You share the same plot point. That said, Allen’s new film, Magic in the Moonlight, will most likely play like an unintentional gift to his more negative critics – evidence for their (incorrect) assertion that he is simply not trying anymore. Magic in the Moonlight is indeed wafer-thin, light entertainment, but does it suggest that Allen isn’t that bothered?
Colin Firth plays Stanley, a magician who spends his free time exposing fraudulent psychics. Invited by his old friend Howard (Simon McBurney) to the south of France, where a rich family are besotted with a new psychic Sophie (Emma Stone), whose tricks even Howard cannot figure out. Stanley agrees, but after meeting Sophie, he cannot uncover her secrets or explain how she does it. He begins to wonder if there really is something supernatural about her and, hence, about the world.
Magic in the Moonlight then is about a moody and outspoken atheist who is suddenly faced with something that science cannot explain. Stanley cannot sleep at night such is his fear of a meaningless existence and when Sophie’s abilities start to break down his (dis)beliefs, he is first sceptical and then overjoyed. Firth is good here, overwhelmed by joy and excitement – as we all would if we suddenly found proof of the possibility of an afterlife. The twist ending is both totally expected and yet mildly disappointing, like waking out of a cheery dream.
Beyond that, there is disappointingly little to Magic in the Moonlight. The film is full of conversations about atheism and faith, as if the film needs to establish the stakes of this dilemma that we have all surely gone through at one point or another. Most of the dialogue is heavy on exposition – there is a lot of explaining for a film as slight as this. Some scenes wander badly while some of the snappy scenes are not nearly snappy enough. Sometimes it feels like something Noel Coward wrote in the early-1940s, which isn’t a particularly good thing. The film feels stretched at 97 minutes – already a bit on the long side for a Woody Allen film – considering that a film as deep and rich as Another Woman was twenty minutes shorter. There are some jokes about Nietzsche but they aren’t good ones – there is no sense here that Allen has even read Nietzsche. In fact there are very few jokes, a lot less than the plot would suggest and a lot less than can be expected of Allen.
Taken as light entertainment, the film is fine. It is entertaining and it is diverting, but only in the way of a TV movie scheduled in the middle of a lazy, rainy afternoon. The cinema feels like the wrong venue for this film, since the cinema encourages more attention and focus than this film can sustain. It is decent, but it is wholly disposable in a way that other supposedly disposable Allen films were not. The ending is so uncertain and rushed it feels like an awkward shrug. It is probably the first Allen film to feel as if it was made only to sustain his one-film-a-year record. So, a bit dull, not awful but not nearly funny enough either, reasonably likable when it is playing. Though you can’t help but wonder what some first-time writer-director would do with these actors, this budget and this idea.