At 78, one can expect good days and bad, or good mornings and drab weeks. After Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen owes us nothing. That was among his best pictures. Even now, he is at work on an untitled project for 2015. So it may just be paying his debt to time, or conforming to the sadder laws of nature, but Magic in the Moonlight is awful and unnecessary. There is no magic, no moonlight, no chemistry, and no impediment to 98 minutes seeming like a day and a half. The old question returns (after the burst of raw energy from Cate Blanchett): How or why does Allen keep making pictures when he seems so unimpressed by people and so indifferent to the medium? Maybe a 78-year-old guesses his only trick is getting up every day.
The titles tell us we’re in Berlin in 1929, and then in the south of France. The mouth is ready to water. But Berlin proves no more than a dash of Ute Lemper and a very matter-of-fact magic act where a magician who goes by the stage name “Wein Ling Soo” (makes an elephant disappear and transports himself from a sarcophagus to a nearby chair). There are warnings: the audience for Wein's audience sits in its seats, without wonder or hope; the tricks are filmed in a cursory way; the panache of the last great age of wishful magic, hypnotism, and spiritual communication is simply not there in Allen’s film. (If you want to feel what’s missing, just look at the Dr. Mabuse films Fritz Lang was making in Germany at the time.) This was an age of subverted nature. People flew; science was advancing; atoms were about to be split; an absurd Bavarian painter might rule the world. Reality was trembling in alarm and uncertainty.
Magic in the Moonlight has no intimation of this. Instead, its Oriental magician—Wein—proves to be Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a charmless autocrat, who has slipped away from his tour to help a friend expose a young woman who is asserting spiritualist powers in the south of France. The woman is Sophie, and Emma Stone is pretty and eager and energetic in the role, but she is unattended by mysterioso or the hint of uncanny insight. I don’t hold that against her. Call it bad luck to be cast in this film. Call it worse than that when there is no chemical charge between her and Firth. This is a trivial, flimsy story—and you don’t need me to tell you what is going to happen—but why make the film unless the two leads are going to shake in the same breeze?
One plain form of magic, as in irrational rapture, is how Woody Allen gets these people to play in his films. Marcia Gay Harden is in this picture—I’m sure of it, though I can’t recall a single thing she does a day after seeing it. The great Eileen Atkins plays Stanley’s wise aunt, only to endure prolonged, lugubrious dialogue scenes with him where the actress (now 80) seems agitated by the thought that at her age the scene ought to gather pace. But there is talk here as dull as United Nations translations, in which the “point” of the film is worn to a blunt stub. Then where is the moonlight, and why has cinematographer Darius Khondji been hired to photograph the south of France when Allen can hardly seem bothered with it? Khondji is a master, but his preferred mood is Se7en and Amour even more than Midnight in Paris.
We are accustomed to admire Allen’s work habit, but why work when he notices so little in the light, in décor, clothes, and faces? So much of this film is done by the numbers, and it’s easy to believe the common report that Allen is inclined to leave the actors to do their thing. Colin Firth is plainly a fine actor but he has been left to overplay Stanley as a pompous, over-bearing materialist. Emma Stone is one among several dozen pretty actresses but she doesn’t seem to grasp the need for allure here (and she isn’t photographed with that in mind). Just imagine Alan Rickman and Marion Cotillard in this set-up—flirtation springs into being at the mere names. Or Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson as they were in Chloe. Come to that, recollect the glowing face of Cotillard in The Immigrant (recently photographed by the same Darius Khondji) and the way a face can be magic on its own. There are only a few faces in Allen’s work that seem to haunt or enchant him—Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. For the rest he is like a man who dislikes the look of his own face and has taken against the species.
Can you believe that there’s a small jazz band doing standards on the soundtrack between scenes? Can you credit that the conversations have the air of Agatha Christie without Poirot or a murder? Do you perceive a reason for making this fluff except as a pretext for getting up in the morning? And yet, only last year, in Blue Jasmine an agonized woman was caught in a desperate and credible situation. It registered as a movie where a viewer was hanging on what happened next. In terms of life on the screen, nothing happens in Magic in the Moonlight. Only the other day, I happened to re-view Orson Welles’s F for Fake, a unique essay-like practical joke made in 1971 and a rueful but exuberant reflection on magic and fraud that leaves this film feeling like a fortune cookie motto. Welles was a lifelong magician, and he loved movies as a version of conjuring. I think he knew magic was a trick, but he was obsessed with it. Allen never convinces us, or himself, that he has the remotest faith in magic or in people who can be fooled by it. His pervasive coldness has resumed and we are left to hope that some secret impulse may return before he is 90.