When they invent a really reliable time machine, I’m going back to the day I graduated from college. I was an English major who took electives like “German Film of the 1930s” and dreamed of being a movie critic for The Village Voice. (How did I end up here instead? It’s a long story.) One thing graduation-day me will ask is “How have movies changed in 40 years?”
I’ll say, “You can’t imagine how much better the visuals are.” Not only because of improved cameras, and not even considering the advent of CGI, but because such meticulous care is now taken with color design, costumes, lighting, locations, and set dressing. Even crummy movies provide an immersive, atmospheric experience. Modern-day filmmaking is consistently a feast for the eyes.
But, I’ll have to tell me, storytelling has gone back to kindergarten. In the Sixties and Seventies we saw a trend toward films that were complex, thought-provoking, and unafraid to withhold a happy ending. But today, story lines are obvious and predictable. The happy ending is signaled every step of the way, lest a viewer worry. It’s a variation on “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: today’s films are gloriously clothed, but, too often, there’s nothing inside.
Woody Allen’s latest movie, Magic in the Moonlight, does a magnificent job of fulfilling those contemporary expectations. It’s set in Provence and the Côte d’Azur in 1928, and the splendor onscreen is as lush as you could desire. The main character is Stanley (Colin Firth), who is by profession a stage magician called Wei Ling Soo; in sumptuous Chinese robes and a long pigtail he makes elephants disappear. He is also the age’s foremost debunker, often called on to expose the tricks of fortune-tellers, channelers, and table-rappers of all types. (This combination of magician and aggressive skeptic is perhaps modeled on James “The Amazing” Randi.)
We meet Stanley as he strides backstage in a fury, tearing off his costume while insulting autograph-seekers and spouting general abuse. A friend tells him, “You have all the charm of a typhus epidemic” (a line that recalls Allen’s writing from 50 years ago). Stanley derides the belief that life has meaning, saying it’s instead “nasty, brutish, and short. Is that Hobbes? I would have got along well with Hobbes.”
You’ve got it now; you grasp what this character is like. But the film won’t stop telling you. He and his friends keep repeating that he is a man of science, he is logical, he disdains belief in God or the supernatural, he revels in exposing frauds. “You are the greatest debunker of fake spiritualists ever,” a character says, speaking clearly and distinctly in case slower audience members have not yet grasped the point.
And that’s not the end of it. “There is of course no spirit world,” Stanley says. And “I’m a rational man who believes in a rational world.” And “I think Mr. Nietzsche has disposed of the God matter rather convincingly.” By this point even the empty seats are nodding. Yes, we get it; can we move on with the story?
Moving on, the situation is that Stanley’s old friend Howard (Simon McBurney), a less famous magician, is stumped by a young spiritualist staying with the prominent Catledge family. Sophie (Emma Stone) has told Howard things she could not possibly have known, and pulled off effects he can’t explain. He invites Stanley to take a look, and Stanley replies, “I can’t wait to see what gimmick she is using, unmask it, and throw it back in her face.” At this point a list of overly predictable remarks could be numbered, and Firth could simply say, “Two.”
Of course Sophie’s performance is seamless, and Stanley’s contempt turns to confusion. If the supernatural realm is real, it shakes his unbelief. The remainder of the story depicts Stanley’s grappling with metaphysics, and given that Allen himself has wrestled with these questions for decades, the movie’s concept showed promise. But viewers hoping for thoughtful exploration of the matter will be disappointed; we’ve got only 100 minutes to work with, so there’s no room for subtlety. There are only two choices: Either you’re logical, or you revel in the beauty and mystery of life. You can change the setting by flipping the little on–off switch in your soul.
Now an additional story line develops, because Sophie is charmed by Stanley from the moment they meet. She’s no match for him intellectually, and much is made of her poor education and general commonness. Sophie mistakenly ascribes “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” to Dickens, the little dear. We all got a warm chuckle out of that. And you hardly need be told that she’s from Kalamazoo, for funny place names are the soul of wit.
Sophie already has a suitor, the young, handsome Catledge heir, who adores her and showers her with gifts. Yet she only has eyes for the middle-aged grumpus Stanley. It’s a one-way romance, for Stanley is immune to her charms. (In another early-Woody moment, he assures her that in certain lights she is somewhat attractive, and recommends the lighting scheme he uses on his elephant.) The movie’s initial story line about faith and doubt is joined by an equally unsubtle story line about a fresh young girl (Emma Stone is 26) bypassing a young, healthy man for an older, cranky one (Colin Firth is 53).
Maybe that’s where the real leap of faith is required. Old men wish with all their hearts that young women would find them sexy, and the ones who are rich and powerful can buy the semblance of such desire. But, given a desert-island situation, most young women would choose young men. (Young men reciprocate; a speed-dating company that tried to bring together sexually aggressive, well-preserved “cougars” with young men couldn’t get any young men to sign up.)
So this is not a realistic story line, but movies keep serving it up anyway. Audrey Hepburn made a cottage industry of it, yearning for Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (she 24 and playing a childlike teen, he 37), Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina (she 25, he 54), Fred Astaire in Funny Face (she 28, he 58), Cary Grant in Charade (she 34, he 59), and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (she 35, he 56). Hollywood doesn’t keep making such movies because they hold a mirror to reality, but because Hollywood is run by rich old men, and it’s how they wish young women would behave.
There’s also something creepy in Sophie’s desire for Stanley; it has to do with our suspicion that Emma Stone is acting out Woody Allen’s fantasies. Long-running gossip about him, fair or not, inevitably sets a backdrop to any May–December story line. It’s dismaying now to re-watch his acclaimed Manhattan (1979) and see him (then 43) in bed with Mariel Hemingway (then 16). The lines he wrote for her to say include complaints that he doesn’t want to have sex often enough, and that he is reluctant to try kinky variations. Hemingway says that Allen gave (I want to say “took”) her first kiss. Fortunately he has stopped casting himself as the male lead, for the kiss he shared with Téa Leoni at the end of Hollywood Ending (2002) was unpleasant to behold. Other people’s fantasies are not always appealing.
As in most movies with the premise that a beautiful young woman is attracted to an older guy, the female lead is going to have to do some top-notch acting. It’s no insult to Colin Firth, handsome and gallant as he is, to recognize that Emma Stone does not convince us of her passion. In short, Magic in the Moonlight is thin on plot, dialogue, and characterization, and it cannot persuade us that the central romance is real — but it’s gorgeous to look at. You can’t hope to see anything more beautiful onscreen this year than the lives of the genteel wealthy, in the south of France, 1928.