‘A romantic comedy with no romance, and feck-all comedy’ – MacDara Conroy on Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight

The greatest trick Woody Allen ever pulled was convincing the world he’s still worth a damn. As a filmmaker, he’s shockingly overrated, coasting on the goodwill amassed by the admittedly superlative Annie Hall for nearly 40 years (with the odd bright spark here and there along the way, but the shits outweigh the hits). As a person, he is by many believable accounts a slime-ball of the highest order. Yet the Hollywood elite continue to grace his casts, and the critical establishment – particularly outside the US – deigns to fall at his feet, taking the default position that even a bad Woody Allen movie is a work that matters. All I can say to that is: Yuck.

So anyway, here we have Magic in the Moonlight, another of his period pieces in the school of Radio Days, Bullets Over Broadway or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, although less of a genre exercise as such. And it takes licence of yesteryear’s mores to make damn well sure we’re aware of its ‘Roaring Twenties’ setting, introducing our leading man Colin Firth as a fake Orientalist magician, Wei Ling Soo, and indeed making liberal use of the word ‘Chinese’ as singular noun. As if the straw boaters and flapper dresses and constant lounging in gardens weren’t enough.

The plot conceit, however, is a potentially rewarding one. Firth’s character, who goes by the real but no less stereotypical name of Stanley Crawford, is not only a stage illusionist but a debunker of spiritualism and the charlatan ‘mediums’ who preyed on the chattering classes – clearly inspired by Harry Houdini’s own similar efforts in the same time period. When an old friend and fellow, but lesser, magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) offers a prime opportunity to take on an ingenue American mystic, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who’s ingratiated herself with a wealthy American family in the south of France, how can Stanley refuse?

That sets up a juicy premise, the kind the late Robert Altman would have sunk his teeth into with relish. Alas, Allen plays it as little more than a comedy of manners, with some nods to Sabrina in its ostentatious setting, old-school scene transitions and motifs (the open-top drive is a staple), class divide references and May-to-December romantic pretensions as Stanley inexplicably falls for Sophie’s charms, despite what’s supposedly his complete conviction in her fakery, and the utter absence of any chemistry between them, after a forced detour to an abandoned observatory that gives us the film’s ill-fitting title. Indeed, there’s a lot about Magic in the Moonlight that’s inexplicable (except for maybe the ‘big twist’, which is telegraphed from the very first scene, so no spoilers necessary).

As films go it’s perfectly watchable, beautifully appointed and with a quirky, mostly charming cast of the Downton Abbey variety – including Jackie Weaver as the dotty matriarch, and Dame Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s sprightly Aunt Vanessa, putting a more libertine spin on Dame Maggie Smith’s unflappable dowager figure. Hamish Linklater is able as Brice, the ukulele-strumming rich nitwit and Sophie’s would-be suitor. Colin Firth is exceedingly Colin Firthy, if you like that sort of thing.

More impressively, Emma Stone adds to her resumé with a confident, assured portrayal of the mysterious interloper. She’s got that special something – Is it in her eyes? Her easy charm? – that transcends the material. Which is a good job here as the character she’s given is ultimately a dream girl archetype (dare I say of the kind perpetuated by Annie Hall herself?) and her motivations confirm more and more to that archetype as the plot progresses, to the point of absurdity. Oh wait, is that supposed to be the joke? Much like Allen’s pre-movies comic writing (and I really gave his Complete Prose a go) I find nothing funny in it. What have we here but a romantic comedy with no romance, and feck-all comedy.

But that’s not even the real problem with Magic in the Moonlight. The real problem is that it represents everything that’s wrong about Woody Allen. What is Sophie, the woman – no, the ‘little American’, no more than a girl – accused of lying to get the world on her side, if not a cipher for Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter who’s accused Allen of abuse? What is Stanley, the self-absorbed, condescending prat who seems to get what he wants regardless of his failings, if not a kind of apologia for Allen himself? What is this film if not the work of a master illusionist pulling the wool over the eyes of his true believers?

Is that being unfair, to read too much into what’s ultimately ‘just a movie’? Well, by pointedly including two psychoanalysts among its cast of characters, Allen gives licence for such analysis of his own work, and life. And the parallels are really too strong, and distasteful, to ignore.

Magic in the Moonlight opens nationwide on Friday September 19th
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