(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.
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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.