Thursday, August 21, 2014

Stale Act: MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT


Woody Allen works so quickly that it’s hardly surprising he tends to alternate his more interesting efforts with movies that clearly could’ve used some extra revisions before filming. You don’t make a film a year for over forty years without making a statistically notable batch of stinkers. (There’s your obligatory reference to Allen’s large body of work.) When he’s good, he’s good, but when he’s bad, the movies sit there slowly dying before your eyes. To make a metaphor out of his favorite music style, he’s a jazz virtuoso who has noodled around the same notes for so long, he’d rather hit bum notes than stop. His latest feature, Magic in the Moonlight, is as somnambulant a picture as he’s ever made, a snooze from frame one. It’s easily one of his weakest efforts.

It tells a dusty story of a world-famous magician (Colin Firth) asked by his best friend (Simon McBurney) to help investigate a pretty young psychic (Emma Stone) and her stage mother (Marcia Gay Harden). He fears they are scamming a rich widow (Jacki Weaver) and her grown son (Hamish Linklater) who have fallen for a phony baloney medium act hook, line, and sinker. It’s a fine screwball setup, but it’s played without a pulse, without wit, and completely devoid of inner life. It looks pleasant, filled up with sun-dappled cinematography by Darius Khondji in widescreen compositions showing off sumptuous locations in the south of France. Set in the Jazz Age that was deftly exploited in Midnight in Paris, there’s no magical realism here, just characters in period garb trading the stalest of bon mots.

There’s a dash of Pygmalion in reverse to the proceedings, as a stuffy British gentleman is determined to unmask the young lady’s attempts to pass herself off as something she’s not. In inverting the classic concept, comedy is lost to condescension. It’s not about a man helping a woman, but instead tearing her down and lording his superior position and power over her. (It’s hard to escape thinking of various Allen scandals with such flatly played underlying ugliness.) That there’s a romance involved – not to mention one with such an age difference – makes it all the more difficult to get on board. Firth is a perfect pompous fussbudget and Stone’s wide eyes and flapper’s physique make a fine foil. I especially liked the way she twitched her eyes wider when receiving her “mental vibrations.” But the plot turns so slowly, situations developing without much in the way of conflict or character. There’s nothing to latch onto.

The worst of it is, I can easily imagine a charming period comedy that could be made with this ensemble and crew. It looks wonderful, the ensemble has a talent for crisp comic scenarios, and Allen can be a funny writer. But none of that appears on screen. It’s so thinly developed, with supporting roles fading away and the leads dutifully making their characters’ arcs hit their marks. Allen’s investigation of a skeptic and a scam artist matching wits is tired. The characters can only be as witty as the script allows, so they come across as gullible drips. And every time a character finds something close to genuine emotion, it’s played off with a scoff. If the movie wasn’t going to take itself too seriously, that’s one thing. But to be light and airy without providing a single pleasing development, tickling thematic construct, or interesting turn of phrase is to be nothing at all.

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