The ‘Magic’ Is Gone: The Lazy Nihilism of Woody Allen

"Magic in the Moonlight"

REARVIEW: After his late-career triumph with 'Blue Jasmine,' the director is up to his tired old tricks in 'Magic in the Moonlight.'

(NOTE: This piece reveals details about the ending of “Magic in the Moonlight.”)

Amid this unusually busy season for faith-based cinema — or whatever we should call 2014’s bumper crop of Christian-themed and/or spiritually inclined movies, from “Son of God,” “Noah,” “God’s Not Dead” and “I Origins” to the still-forthcoming “Left Behind” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — the arrival of one of the year’s more prominent anti-faith movies should not go unnoticed. I’m talking about “Magic in the Moonlight,” the latest sun-drenched romantic travelogue from that fitful cinematic genius and self-styled nihilist philosopher, Woody Allen.

Fittingly enough for a story about professional magicians and wily con artists, the film unfolds against the French Riviera in 1928, a setting ripe with all manner of enchanting and seductive possibilities. But don’t let that title fool you: Earnest as it may sound, it actually begs to be read sarcastically. Allen’s stand-in this time around is Stanley (Colin Firth), a man of science and reason who seeks to expose a young woman, Sophie (Emma Stone), claiming to possess second sight — and, in the process, to reaffirm his Nietzschean view of the world as one where no supernatural powers exist and no deities hold sway.

By the end, a story that started out as light and airy as a souffle has instead turned as heavy as a cassoulet, and “Magic in the Moonlight” has revealed itself to be another one of the writer-director’s patented lectures on the nonexistence of God, the absence of meaning and the fundamental emptiness of human existence. In the vacant cosmos that governs Woody Allen’s universe, we’re all at the mercy of blind chance and dumb luck, and romance is the closest thing to real magic that any of us will ever experience.

FILM REVIEW: “Magic in the Moonlight”

Speaking of romance: “Magic in the Moonlight” happens to hinge on a coy flirtation between a man and a woman nearly three decades his junior, which is hardly a new premise for Allen. (As some critics have pointed out, their reactions no doubt informed by scandalous recent headlines, it’s also about the older man’s efforts to discredit the younger woman.) In this particular May-December match-up, Stanley and Sophie’s improbable union is presented as the solution to a quandary posed early on: the triumphant victory of love over reason. Only when it comes to l’amour fou, it seems, will Allen make any concession to the pull of the irrational. In a world without God, only love — reckless, passionate and age-blind — gives us cause to indulge what the heart wants, regardless of what the mind knows. Any other attempt to find grace, transcendence or eternal assurance will ultimately prove empty and meaningless.

To be similarly blunt: This is not a worldview that I find useful, thoughtful or, in any sense, truthful. But that’s beside the point. A great artist can either flatter or challenge our deepest-held convictions, and to rule out cynicism and misanthropy would mean dismissing some of our most vital filmmakers, from Billy Wilder and Luis Bunuel to the Coen brothers and Lars von Trier. And I would argue that the Woody Allen of yesteryear — the one who memorably asked “Why is life worth living?” in “Manhattan” and briefly contemplated suicide in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” or who channeled his rage against humanity into the scabrous comedy of “Deconstructing Harry” — surely belongs in their company.

The Woody Allen who made “Magic in the Moonlight,” alas, is another matter entirely. Beautifully shot and lethally inert, the movie doesn’t just feel old-hat or out of touch; it’s world-weary to the point of exhaustion. Characters don’t interact so much as stand about rattling off plot points and moral positions, as if the effort required to actually dramatize something — as opposed to merely shoving it into the mouth of the nearest bystander — would cause the whole thing to collapse. Scene after scene seems to unfold in a static, airless limbo, hermetically sealed off from anything resembling lived-in human experience. When Stanley’s aunt (a delightful Eileen Atkins) is sidelined by a serious car accident, the entire incident takes place offscreen, a decision that feels more callously detached than I think Allen even begins to realize. He couldn’t be less invested in her suffering or her survival; she’s there merely to advance the plot and, more importantly, to score a philosophical point.

Something similar happens when Stanley is temporarily hoodwinked by Sophie, and is subsequently forced to grapple with the notion that some higher power may in fact exist. There’s no conviction in Firth’s performance here: It’s so obviously a fit of temporary insanity, a ruse engineered for the sake of a third-act turnaround, that we don’t buy the character’s transformation for a second. The film does include a scene in which this stone-cold atheist finds himself muttering his way through a prayer for perhaps the first time in his life, but the words soon die in his throat as the cool, intellectual voice of reason reasserts itself. Even when he’s trying to stretch himself, Allen refuses to consider the possibility of connecting with something greater — or, for that matter, to risk empathizing with those who do.

Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about “Magic in the Moonlight” is the way Allen seems to reach these pessimistic conclusions as if he were doing so for the first time. The idea that there is no reigning order in the universe, no spiritual presence or benevolent being to guide us on this earthly plane, is laid bare with a grand “voila!” flourish, as if the director were himself a magician unveiling his latest, most spellbinding illusion. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that we’ve seen this particular trick all too many times from him before, and executed with considerably more panache.

Allen effectively laid his ethical cards on the table with “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” his darkly comic 1989 study of a man who gets away with murder, and it remains one of the richest, most genuinely unsettling works of his career. The trick worked so well that he repeated it in 2005’s “Match Point,” another tale of adultery and murder that was rightly hailed as a return to form after a long fallow period, and for that same reason wound up inevitably overpraised. Beneath the change-of-pace London setting and gorgeous young cast, the seams of Allen’s amorality play — an intricate puzzle jerry-rigged to demonstrate the absence of cosmic justice — couldn’t help but show. Still, better “Match Point” than some of the sour doodles that followed it, like “Cassandra’s Dream,” a crime drama on Dostoevskian autopilot, or “Whatever Works,” based on a script at least 30 years past its sell-by date, or “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” which could be the longest shrug of indifference ever caught on film.

None of this is meant to deny or diminish Allen’s major late-career triumphs. No, I don’t mean that one-joke trifle “Midnight in Paris.” I’m thinking of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” a movie as talky and overly diagrammed as any in the Woodman’s oeuvre, but one marked by a profound sense of romantic yearning and a rueful understanding of human fickleness. And I was startled by how deeply I responded to “Blue Jasmine,” which is easily his finest, liveliest work in years — at once a scalding social satire and a fully felt tragedy, with none of the condescension that often mars Allen’s comedies of class disparity. In both these pictures, the telltale cynicism is still very much in evidence, but it’s subtly embedded in the material rather than smeared on with a trowel. He didn’t abandon his worldview; he simply realized he had other, more interesting parts of himself to offer.

And yet, every few pictures or so, Allen retreats to familiar, one-note nihilist territory, like an old jazz record that keeps getting stuck in the same groove — or, perhaps more accurately, like a filmmaker too caught up in his own productivity (at the age of 78, he’s now directing his 47th feature) to cast a more discriminating eye on his choice of material. Industrious though he may be, there’s something about Woody Allen’s God-is-dead shtick that brings out his laziest instincts as a writer: It’s as if he’s trying to make a point that’s already such a foregone conclusion, he needs to expend only minimal effort to get it across. But if that’s the case, why keep telling us something he’s already told us many times before? At a certain point, doesn’t all this relentless insistence begin to sound like an increasingly desperate form of denial?

In “Magic in the Moonlight,” Allen seeks to reduce the very idea of God to the level of parlor trickery, all smoke and mirrors and invisible wirework. Hailing from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, I’d say the issue of faith is predicated not on the arrogant assumption that we can either prove or disprove the existence of God, but on the question of whether we can recognize our collective need for something greater than the usual human aspirations: affluence, security, fame, pleasure. Some might call it salvation, which is not a particularly fashionable concept in this day and age, but not a wholly irrelevant one, either. Emerging from the dross and drollery of “Magic in the Moonlight,” you can’t help but wonder if anyone can save Woody Allen from himself.

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  1. alan says:

    This is a classic witch-burning of a review that reasserts an argument far more played out and wearisome than anything Woody Allen has ever written and directed: that one cannot return to scene of one’s doubts–even to add more discriminate lines to a shadow. So–shall we stop expressing our doubt about god, man, and the universe because it has been expressed and discussed hundreds of times in film, thousands of times in books, and millions of time in quotidian life? Shall we stop admitting petulant reviews of Woody’s flicks because every ambitious critic looking to make a name for himself knows that his bile will more interesting to publishers than his heartstrings?

    Sure, every reviewer should state his view–but but let’s be certain to reminds the reviewer of the oldest saw of all–that Mr. Chang is a reviewer because he can’t put up anything on the screen that even vaguely resembles “cleverness” or “populistic chemistry.”

    As long as Woody lives, let him return to any scene he likes and let him hold out for another interpretation–sort of like Rashomon spread out over multitudes of film I would prefer to have one new thought on any frame of any well-trodden Woody territory than to bear one more banal “scathing” review or dismissive judgment on Woody’s work.

    See ya’ Woody—certain that I won’t see you Mr. Chang.

  2. mallard says:

    This critic’s review is really strange, in that he takes some effort to assure us that he isn’t judging the movie based on its viewpoint but rather on the dull and repetitive manner in which this viewpoint is again conveyed, but then he ends the review with that repugnant last paragraph, with it’s incoherent defense of faith and the fun bit of condescending proselytization about Woody needing salvation. I particularly enjoyed the boiling down of atheistic human aspirations to money, security, fame, and pleasure. Yup, that’s all my atheistic ass cares about. And while the first three are laughable straw man material, you’ve gotta love the use of the word “pleasure” rather than, say, “happiness.” Makes me thing of some Catholic school nuns using that word in a tone of voice dripping with disgust. The most amusing thing about this is the writer’s implication that pleasure is not what his faith is about, even though pleasure can easily include such concepts as happiness, comfort, contentedness, etc., and not just orgasms, drunkenness, gluttony, and whatever other superficial desires he’d like to equate with a non-faith-based life.

    I believe that this writer actually did like Crimes and Misdemeanors and movies with a similarly atheistic worldview. And I too think a lot of Woody’s current output is stale as hell. But this writer’s critique of this movie is not nearly as rational and detached as he seems to think it is.

  3. tlsnyder42 says:

    What Woody forgets is that, in at least a monotheistic religion, God is the source and embodiment of Reason and Logic as well as human personality. Thus, in traditional monotheism, the logic and reason of God provides the foundation for human science, history and ethics. In that sense, nihilism is the truly irrational philosophy, not ethical monotheism, because nihilism provides no rational warrant to believe in the logic of science, or anything else, for that matter. Setting that issue aside, Allen also forgets that emotion and love, as well as the empiricism of empirical facts, are themselves rational categories subject to the laws of logic.

  4. facts! says:

    The operative question is why do actors continue to clamor to work for Woody? Bet that’s not for much longer, as b.o. interest in his old formulas hopefully and finally drops off…

  5. PETER says:

    Justin, thank you, now I want to see MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT. And should we care about the age difference between Colin Firth and Emma Stone? Come on, it Mr. Darcy! And did anybody complain about Cary Grant and Gary Cooper and their daughter-like, romantic leads?

  6. Leonard Zelig says:

    All this negativity about the movie, yet it still stands 61% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. 42 critics enjoyed the film and 27 didn’t. Not bad for a lazy nihilist who has written/directed 45 or so films.

  7. krmercier says:

    Justin: Your own writing is simply delicious. I love the way that you well-use words without self-congratulation and yet (here’s the real coup) biting creativity and scathing clarity. Your style of writing leads me to believe you, without having taken in the film myself. I appreciate it. Thanks.

  8. SeeingDouble says:

    How is it anti-Semitism to criticize someone for being a nihilistic Nietzschean? But without a doubt, accusing a Chinese-American of eating dogs, is beyond the pale of bigotry.

    (And why on earth does every liberal think that the key to changing someone’s mind is for them to “get laid”? Talk about non sequiturs.)

  9. SeeingDouble says:

    But if Justin were an atheist, and were critiquing a film made from a faith ethos, would you likewise expect him not to mention the thematic content? (Be careful, everyone’s hypocrite meters are fully charged up.)

    I recall reading a review of Lion, Witch & The Wardrobe that called it a “tepid Sunday school lesson made with subpar visual effects.” I recall Passion of the Christ being ripped to shreds by the most renowned of critics, not for its excellence of direction, acting, and production values, but for its spiritual content. In fact, every film review I’ve read in a major paper for a film made from a faith worldview is rife with derision not for the film itself, but for the thematic position.

    Double standards abound amongst the “open-minded” in entertainment. It would be remarkably refreshing for someone to at least admit it.

  10. Stan Evans says:

    It’s not surprising to see how Variety readers would react to this review. If you don’t share THEIR pessimistic secular world view, they’re upset. For once, a rarity in any Hollywood blog, someone suggests that hating God isn’t a fresh artistic choice but rather boring. How dare he! Supporting pedophiles is their idea of morality.

    • David says:

      There is no God, that’s a fairy tale. And the pedophiles are squarely in the (irony!) religious institutions

      • Guy Fawkes Lives says:

        @David, your over-used cliches are tiresome and sophomoric, exactly like Woody’s movies. Try something new next time, okay?

  11. Sandra. Hunter says:

    I once again find yr review makes me even more eager to see Magic in the Moonlight. And I absolutely loved Midnight is Paris. So keep the reviews coming. They are very helpful!

  12. Oscar says:

    I’m sorry you hate movies so much, Justin. I think Woody has been great lately. This might not be his best in the last few years, but that’s only because he set the bar so high. Magic in the Moonlight is a charming film.

  13. JohnHarrington says:

    Hilarious that this reviewer thinks a writer-directer should change his world view because the reviewer is tired of it. The arrogance and blindness of this point of view is farcical. This guy is a professional reviewer? Does he even try anymore?

  14. mchasewalker says:

    Religion has many flaws and deficiencies, but few are as apparent as those displayed here by a “true believer” who can’t even get out of his own way to review a Woody Allen comedy.

    • GKN says:

      Exactly. Sounds like this film might be a gust of fresh air amidst this year’s deluge of ‘godliness’ – or kowtowing to what’s perceived as what ‘the majority’ want, in any case. Will definitely give this a shot. So glad I didn’t listen re ‘Jersey Boys’ either.

  15. Robert Fromson says:

    This reviewer has let his personal bias enter into his review. This is unacceptable and ceases to be journalism, but rather an opinion piece. Mr. Allen’s film is beautifully shot with the south of France captured at its best. The acting it top-notch, and May-December relationships have been in writings since Euripides. I am a movie fan, not a Woody fan, and this is a very good movie and Variety readers should see it and decide for themselves. It is a great script and it is very well done. Four stars.

    Enough with the Woody haters. Poor Mia…who cares. Even her son says she is manipulative and untruthful. Yes, Woody took up with an inappropriate younger person, who is STILL his wife and who has a great life. Too much age difference? Who is to judge. It worked for Tony Randall, and it has worked for many others. Stop bashing Woody. He is a most talented writer and director. How many awards has the reviewer won?

  16. Dan G says:

    Lazy reviewer doesn’t like Woody Allen’s religious beliefs and feels that this personal feeling is a legitimate criticism of a movie. Just from one the premiere film business mags.

  17. Scuba Girl says:

    Ah, no. It’s not what Woody Allen did or did not do with Dylan Farrow that is under the microscope here; it’s his relationship and subsequent marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. Yes, there have been May-December screen pairings before, but Emma Stone was costumed, directed and lit like a teenager rather than a 25 year-old woman. And Colin Firth played Stanley like a dyspeptic old man, which exaggerated the age difference.

    Regardless, there was absolutely no story to drive the plot forward. Yes, the movie was pretty to look at, but had no substance to it. I saw it at a screening and felt taken advantage of. It’s an hour and a half of my life that I will never get back.

  18. Phm says:

    Wonderfully written critique.

  19. Shawn says:

    This article reads like it’s a Christian movie critic pissed off at Woody Allen because he’s an atheist. That makes this “review” even lazier than he’s accusing Woody’s movie of being!

  20. jhs39 says:

    I haven’t been a Woody Allen fan for years, so I’m not in a position to defend or attack his latest movies since I avoid them like the plague–I’ve probably seen two new Woody Allen movies in the last fifteen years, and considering how quickly he works that means I’ve likely missed 13 movies or more. But the writer of this piece seems to be attacking Woody Allen for being an atheist and including that world-view in his movies.

    Problem number one with this is that the writer doesn’t acknowledge how unusual this is in Hollywood movies, even if it isn’t unusual in Woody Allen films. Hollywood filmmakers either avoid religion altogether or embrace it–they don’t take a risk of alienating a huge percentage of their potential audience by expressing anything that could be considered atheism.

    Problem two if this writer thinks it is valid to criticize Woody Allen for what he considers a cynical and reductive world-view then he should explain why he believes that rather than simply attack Allen. I have never understood how any intelligent person could possibly believe in God and organized religion–if this writer has an actual justification for his beliefs he should include it in the article with his attack on Allen’s world-view. The author of this piece is even lazier than Allen is.

    • Michael says:

      jhs39, I applaud your comments!

      • Steven Kaye says:

        See, as a Christian I can’t understand how any intelligent person could possibly be an atheist, but that doesn’t stop me from being a huge Woody Allen fan. He’s one of the few film-makers out there – perhaps the only one – who actually has a world-view which he depicts in his work. Plus he’s got an incredible sense of humour – which he’s going to need because I’m afraid the last laugh will be on him.

      • Ken says:

        Ditto for me, as well. And Mr. Chang – why not attack Stanley Kubrick for his nihilism while you’re at it?

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