Another year, another Woody Allen movie, another reason to marvel at the seemingly infinite gradations of mediocrity in one body of work. People used to look at films like Sleeper or Annie Hall or The Purple Rose of Cairo or Husbands and Wives and ask: “How does he do it?” Now they just say “Why does he do it?” and “How can we make him stop?”
I mention this on the occasion of the release of Magic in the Moonlight, which manages to be bad in all sorts of ways, and to make actors and other collaborators who are usually good come off as bad into the bargain. Set on the French Riviera in the 1920s, it follows the efforts of a stage conjurer, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), to expose as a liar a young woman, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who claims to be a medium. If only the film could say the same. But it isn’t a medium. It’s a poor.
Either Colin Firth is miscast or misdirected. Whichever it is, he misses the mark by miles. Stanley is so outwardly smug and obnoxious that we need some glimmer of vulnerability or idealism in him long before he undergoes the spiritual change that the screenplay requires for him to fall for Sophie. We need a crumb of empathy with him. That shouldn’t be hard in an actor as giving as Firth. But the film kills his charms dead. He overplays Stanley’s self-satisfaction so grotesquely that he may as well be nudging the audience in the ribs to alert them to the character’s forthcoming epiphany. When he wants to be funny, he goes for over-emphatic, in the manner of a monoglot convinced that a hike in volume will make him intelligible to foreign ears.
In the frothier, brighter role as a woman who is all appetite, Stone is better, but even she makes heavy weather of what should be a breeze. That’s the key, I think, to the film’s failure: Allen’s lightness of touch is gone. You can feel the strain in every effect the movie reaches for, no matter how trivial. The editing is clunky: it seems to take an eternity to get through any scene. To say that Darius Khondji’s pretty cinematography is of the chocolate box variety would be a grave insult to chocolate boxes everywhere. Worst of all are the screenplay’s endless failed witticisms. It’s a miracle that any of these could have survived repeated drafts:
“You only live once. Or maybe twice or three times, depending on your supply of ectoplasm.”
“I’ve decided to take you under my wing. It’s a saying. Obviously I don’t have wings.”
“I always thought the unseen world would be a great place to open a restaurant. The dead have to eat, don’t they?”
Sophie: “The planets are in alignment.”
Stanley: “What with—your vertebrae?”
Magic in the Moonlight is on release.