Return to Bad Form: Magic in the Moonlight, Lucy, and A Master Builder

by Armond White
Woody Allen, Luc Besson, and Jonathan Demme have all seen better days.

In Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen’s latest “return to form,” the once-comic filmmaker reminds moviegoers — for the umpteenth time — that “life has no meaning.” This blandly decadent philosophy, a sour concession between two lovers, makes sense only if one’s career is repeating the same tired, nihilistic point on a perennial basis. It’s the audience who suffers Allen’s Sisyphean hell.

Magic (ha!) rehashes elements from Allen’s 43 previous films: British illusionist Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is induced to practice his sideline as a debunker of professional mystics by investigating American clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who holds séances for a rich widow and her infatuated son. Typical Allen characters, Stanley and Sophie are both con artists of sorts. He performs on stage as faux Chinese magician Wei Ling-soo and she gloms off wealthy customers; each dependent on various gullible patrons — a close parallel to Allen’s own career. (Even this film’s cliché title is for suckers.)

Stanley ironically, or disingenuously, is a skeptic, challenging Sophie’s spiritualism until they fall in love — a predictable but tedious-to-watch gimmick. Allen’s unoriginal narrative and lack of visual expression stand out only for being eternally supported by media mavens devoted to celebrating his auteur status. This includes their tolerance for Allen’s insistent culture-mongering — from quirky reliance on idiosyncratic music scores (mashing up Gershwin, Ravel, Stravinsky) to his Continental affectations and middlebrow name-dropping (Stanley quotes Hobbes: “Life is nasty, brutish and short”).

These anachronisms might be amusing if they gave enlightenment — the way a great artist like Jacques Demy referenced other movies and fairytales in his explorations of desire. (Demy’s masterworks Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are now available in a newly remastered Criterion box set, “The Essential Jacques Demy.”) But Allen’s cocktail-party references are trite means of toadying up to his followers. Intellectually insecure, they mistake Allen’s small-minded, tin-hearted conceits for compassion, romance, or good humor. (Stanley’s gripes are mean-spirited, not funny.)

Stanley rails against others’ naïveté, priding himself as a non-believer (“from the séance table to the Vatican and beyond”) and scoffs at Sophie’s fancies, “Here comes the usual theatrical fertilizer.” He’s a Darwin follower who wants to visit the Galapagos Islands; yet Allen’s true hoodwink — the film’s radiant, scenic Riviera setting, photographed by Darius Khondji — is undercut by cynicism. Oohing-aahing fans merely recognize Allen trespassing on Merchant-Ivory territory. Stanley and Sophie’s mix of European sophistication and American guile recalls Allen’s fatuous hit Midnight in Paris. It’s all, as Stanley harrumphs, bilge.

Firth and Stone’s infelicitous pairing suggests a Pygmalion rip-off (accent on pig — they’re Allen’s usual smart guy/dithering gal), but minus Shaw’s articulation of the frisson of battling egos. These are stock characters in “love” such as Allen doesn’t believe in (their prayerful contemplation embarrasses Shaw) or that Allen’s static images simply can’t convey. Dull wide shots are not kinetic, sensual, or spiritual. Allen’s vain, deceitful tricksters remain — like himself — insensitive to other people’s pain.

***

“Let’s try it this way,” Luc Besson must have thought when writing and directing Lucy. After the indifferent box-office response to Besson’s previous female-centered productions — Columbiana, a surprising, dazzling revenge thriller starring Zoe Saldana at her sexy best, and The Lady, a biography of Burma’s Aung Sang Soo Kyi, movingly played by Michelle Yeoh — the multicultural Besson returns to the surety of a First World protagonist. He cast nubile American Scarlett Johansson as a student in Taipei who gets hustled into an international drug-smuggling scheme and then kills her way to answers and retaliation.

Named Lucy, like the three-million-year-old skeletal fragments of the first female hominid discovered in the early 1970s, La Femme Johansson gets infected by a synthetic CPH4 hormone that changes her metabolism and increases her cerebral capacity — access that gives her primal, superhuman intelligence and sensitivity. The resemblance to prehistoric woman is Besson’s jest; the opening scene of primate Lucy’s first glimmer of cognizance and curiosity makes a One-World link to blond, Caucasian Lucy.

It’s an ultimate expression of Besson’s major interests: The cosmopolitan diversity he enjoys depicting in post-colonial Europe; his fascination with female strength from La Femme Nikita to The Professional, The Fifth Element, and Angel-A as well as Colombiana and The Lady; and his action flick connoisseurship as producer of geopolitically astute action flicks like Transporter and the Taken movies. All that is built into the gimmick of Lucy counting up to gaining 100 percent of her brain power. She becomes a superheroine who — in a Marvel Comics touch — then counts down to her own extinction, a dire fate only neuroscientist Dr. Norman (Morgan Freeman) understands.

The sympatico communication between Lucy and Norman is pure New World Order Besson. Lucy’s smooth, rejuvenated flesh contrasts Norman’s dark, freckled countenance. But there’s too much commercial calculation in Besson’s conceit. Lucy and Norman’s complementary youth and age, anger and patience, instinct and wisdom, achieve nothing comparable to the rapport Yeoh and David Thewlis had in The Lady. In hasty, sentimental bits with her mother and a school roommate, Lucy lacks Colombiana’s interior romantic life. She’s just a killing machine. Her morphing intelligence and special powers are given loopy explanation (to appeal to nerds who liked the movie Looper?). Yet this new form of anthropological, Glock-9 sci-fi needs genuine philosophical exploration, perhaps like Alain Resnais’s sci-fi foray, Je t’aime, Je t’aime, or a moral response to violence like Clark Kent’s synthesis of earthly stimuli in Man of Steel. Lucy’s vision of radio signals as rainbows suggests that Besson appreciated Zack Snyder’s vision.

As Lucy gets weirder and less satisfying, it suggests an unofficial sequel to Johansson’s previous films, the ghastly Under the Skin where she played an alien killbot and the insipid Her where she voiced a computer operating system. At least Besson provides this pouty film star some apt dialog: “Life was given to us a million years ago. What have we done with it?” For himself, Besson manages two intriguing bits: When Lucy kisses an Arab cop (Amr Waked) and tells him “You’re a reminder” and a DePalma-style scene where she likens fast-motion film to human experience: “Time is the only measure of existence.” Flashy and pithy. Take that, Richard Linklater!

***

Jonathan Demme’s film version of The Master Builder should have been the revelatory political movie of the moment (a distinction that rests instead with Vincere, Marco Bellocchio’s analysis of a nation’s mass hysteria over a political leader). Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play scrutinized a celebrated architect’s selfish use of influence, analyzing the psychology of power and the cult of personality. Coming close to the sympathetic Richard Nixon satire Robert Altman achieved in Secret Honor, Demme’s compassion is blocked by the lead performance of Wallace Shawn, whose cartoonishness nearly destroys Ibsen’s insight.

Now titled A Master Builder, this adaptation is another collaboration between Shawn and Andre Gregory, whose My Dinner with Andre (an acquired taste) was filmed by the late eclectic adept Louis Malle. Humanist master Demme wasn’t given enough latitude. Ibsen’s psychological tragedy isn’t Demme’s thing. Shawn’s rewrite invokes dream logic, which Demme uses to make the female characters especially compassionate — as in his masterpieces Beloved and Rachel Getting Married. Yet the central expose of a man’s vanity and paranoia should have contemporary relevance as in PiL’s “Open and Revolving” and Morrissey’s “Oboe Concerto” — songs that pop adept Demme surely knows. But, unfortunately, he doesn’t provide the timely connection.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.