Wednesday, 27 August 2014


eOne Films

Woody Allen makes a film every year. Every year. And without meaning to sound patronising, that's impressive for a 78-year-old. But there's a difference between keeping busy and producing good (or great) work, and the results are often evident in the New York auteur's post-2000 oeuvre.

For for every good film (Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight In Paris (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013)), Allen seems to follow-up with a less than stellar effort: Scoop (2006), and To Rome With Love (2012), for example. And so it is with Magic In The Moonlight, which, even if it didn't come so soon after the award-winning Blue Jasmine (and Cate Blanchett's towering tragi-comic performance) would suffer from unmet audience expectations.

For on paper, Magic in the Moonlight has the right ingredients to succeed, or at the very least entertain: two fine actors in the leads (Colin Firth and Emma Stone), a playful battle of wits between cynicism and open-mindedness, and period detail and picturesque locales in the south of France.

It's 1928, and professional magician Stanley Crawford (Firth), who works under the stage name (and yellow face) of Wei Ling Soo, is called upon by an old colleague, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), to travel to the Cote d'Azur where he believes a young American spiritualist is trying to swindle a visiting wealthy family. Stanley agrees, for if there is nothing he enjoys more than wowing an audience with his teleportation tricks -- elephants and himself -- it's debunking those who profess to claim actual powers of the occult.

Firth (the least Allen-esque avatar for some time) seems to be channeling his infamous Mr Darcy role, sans brooding silence. Stanley is never short of a word or two, and he's full of pride and extremely prejudiced. But his claws retract somewhat when he meets Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), the big-eyed, red-haired American who claims to be in contact with the spirit world. And like Elizabeth Bennett, Sophie takes great delight in confounding her scowling opposite.

The age difference aside, there's not much chemistry to speak of between Firth and Stone: Stanley's dialogue seems to consist of Allen bits on the meaningless of life, and when he's not sharing them with everyone he's letting everyone know how intellectually superior he is to them. As for Stone, ostensibly an ideal actress for a Woody Allen film, she looks great in period dress but her comic ability is under-utilized. Maybe it's the summer sun in the south of France, but there's a lack of energy to their interplay and the film in general.

Marcia Gay Harden, as Sophie's mother, and Jacki Weaver, as the wealthy widow in Sophie's sites (she plans to fund the young clairvoyant's research facility), aren't given a whole lot to do either, which is odd given that you can almost always rely on Woody to write great roles for women. But thankfully there's Eileen Atkins as Stanley's Aunt Vanessa, the only person whose opinion he values and who is not afraid to challenge his 'logical' ways.

Perhaps this late 1920s tale comes too soon in the wake of Midnight In Paris, where Allen's protag and avatar (played by Owen Wilson) found a way to travel back through time to Paris in the 1920s and hob-knob with his literary and artistic heroes. Indeed, at one Gatsby-esque party scene in Magic in the Moonlight, one can't help but hope for Marion Cotillard's muse from 'Midnight' to wander in off the lawn and lead us off to another more fascinating soiree.

Alas, that's not to be and ultimately Magic in the Moonlight fades not too long after the end credits roll. This is not a summer -- nor a Woody Allen film -- to remember. But we'll always we have Midnight in Paris.

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