Thursday, August 7, 2014

'Magic' shines a very pale light

A yawn of a movie from Woody Allen.
Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight -- another Allen-directed bauble set in Europe -- is a minor addition to a long list of movies that includes a handful of major films, not a sum to be sniffed at.

In setting magic against reason and extending the idea of magic to all matters that might be deemed spiritual, Allen's latest suggests that an oft-visited thematic well may have run dry.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji and equally well-crafted by production designer Anne Seibel, Magic in the Moonlight is not without its virtues, notably Colin Firth's supremely irritable performance as Stanley Crawford, a magician who has devoted his life to perfecting his act and debunking faux spiritualists.

Visually, the movie -- much of it set on the Cote d'Azur during the 1920s -- is appealing enough. But the ideas in Magic in the Moonlight adhere to the movie's surface like a series of philosophical Post-it notes.

Is there a God? Is this life and what we're able to perceive about it all there is? How should we react if the universe is an uncaring mechanism in which we are random occurrences? What role does love play in all of this and can love and attraction ever be explained?

Those are interesting questions, but in Magic, they're something to be debated by the characters rather than perplexities woven into the movie's fabric.

Put another way, there's plenty of craft in Allen's movie and not enough sleight of hand.

The plot of Magic in the Moonlight may have been better suited to one of Allen's short stories than to a full-blown movie. Firth's Stanley -- who performs as a Chinese magician named Wei Ling Soo -- is asked by a less-accomplished illusionist (Simon McBurney) to visit a wealthy widow who has fallen under the sway of an American spiritualist (Emma Stone) and her ambitious mother (Marcia Gay Harden).

Stone doesn't seem quite up to the task of playing a mysterious woman who claims to be able to commune with the dead. A young Mia Farrow might have pulled it off or certainly Cate Blanchett, who starred in the much better Blue Jasmine.

Predictably, Stanley -- the great rationalist -- finds himself stuck in the muddy waters of infatuation. Despite the fact that he's already engaged and despite his commitment to pure reason, he's enchanted by Stone's Sophie.

At the same time, the wealthy but shallow Brice (Hamish Linklater) also has fallen for Sophie, offering her a life of great material ease.

Additional characters make appearances, but the core of Magic in the Moonlight rests on Firth and Stone's shoulders.

Performances aside, the movie's core feels depleted and overworked, dimming what might have been the gem-like quality of a well-appointed period piece.

I don't mean to suggest that Allen is finished as an artist. I've thought that before, and subsequent Allen movies (Match Point and Blue Jasmine, for example) have proven me wrong. But Magic in the Moonlight has a familiarity that makes for tedium.

Once again, Allen seems to be arguing with himself about contradictions many of us have learned to live with. Rather than leading the way as an artist, in Magic in the Moonlight, he seems to be chasing his own tail -- or is it tale?

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