This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Compulsive filmmaker Woody Allen has pretty much admitted that his cinematic practice is such that each of his pictures is a swing at something. And that he’s the last to know, in a sense, the extent to which he “connects.” Which is not to say he has no opinions about his pictures—he does, and they’re usually ones related to disappointment—but rather that he keeps up the pace that he does—making one film a year, like clockwork, since 1983—out of a genuinely aspirational impulse.
Critical opinion on the extent to which he connects varies pretty wildly. I remember seeing Allen’s 2005 drama "Match Point" at the Cannes Film Festival and thinking it a lot of silly rot. So did another critic friend, and imagine our surprise as we filed out into the lobby of the screening area to mix with dozens, if not hundreds, of critics who found the picture a thrilling return to form, or an Allen renaissance even. But the follow-up to that, 2006’s "Scoop," was hardly anyone’s idea of primo Woody, and reception was wobbly from that point on, although the past four years have been, most would agree, pretty good artistic ones (although not so good with respect to certain aspects of Allen’s personal life, one is obliged to note). 2011’s "Midnight In Paris" was considered by many a bonafide comedic masterwork and became a commercial hit; the more pro forma but not-without-its-innovations (and pleasures) 2012 "From Rome With Love" did more than coast on the good will generated by "Midnight;" and 2013’s "Blue Jasmine," derivative of Tennessee Williams or not, garnered a Best Actress Oscar for its lead, Cate Blanchett.
While Allen’s new picture, "Magic In The Moonlight," isn’t even close to being a disaster (for that, see, well, "Scoop"), I don’t think it’s unreasonable to note that, in my estimation, it’s where Allen’s latest streak…well, let’s not say “ends.” Let’s be moderate and say “ebbs.” Don’t get me wrong, much of "Magic In The Moonlight" is a pleasure to experience, particularly if you’re an aficionado of the sort of sophisticated, neurosis-laden romantic comedy that counts as one of Allen’s specialties. The movie is a period piece, set in Europe in the late 1920s, which is also a boon as it frees Allen from trying to have to come up with credible dialogue for contemporary characters in their 30s, something he’s more challenged to achieve as the years go on.
The premise, too, is charming: celebrated stage magician Colin Firth, a dyed-in-the-wool materialist, is enlisted by an old friend to sojourn to the South of France and debunk a young woman claiming to be a spiritualist, who at the moment seems to have hoodwinked a rich American family, particularly its moony first-born son and heir. Once in the intoxicating atmosphere of not just the playgrounds of the idle rich but that attending Sophie, the utterly disarming communicator-with-the-afterworld, a young redhead played by Emma Stone, Firth’s Stanley softens. Upon discovering that he cannot, in fact, find any mechanical trickery or other sham stuff in her routine, the character, who initially proclaimed to all within earshot of spirituality, “There is no real thing; it’s all phony, from the séance table to the Vatican,” does a complete turnaround and declares himself a believer. A new sense of well-being infuses the heretofore sour and cynical Stanley, and he is resoundingly grateful for it. Does this gratitude also translate into romantic feelings for her?
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