In ‘Magic in the Moonlight’, Ideas Trump Characters

The fundamentalist atheism and myopic intellectualism of Woody Allen's latest depiction of an older man/younger woman dynamic makes it a pale imitation of his best work.

Magic in the Moonlight follows the well-trodden path of at least a dozen Woody Allen films that concern a middle-aged man’s world being entangled with and upended by a younger, vivacious woman. Allen’s reliance upon this formula shouldn’t be read as a critique, as many outstanding directors repeatedly return to familiar ground within their films. Alienation runs like a rich vein throughout all of Michelangelo Antonioni’s most popular films. Ingmar Bergman endlessly revisited Fårö island to chronicle the psychic disintegration of his characters. John Ford employed the stark landscape of Monument Valley where the bonds of community were tested.

Yet unlike Allen’s richer and more developed films that explore the nuances and complexities of the older man/younger woman theme like Manhattan (1979), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008), Magic in the Moonlight serves more as a placeholder. It’s an adequate film to, for the time being, tide over fans with familiar themes tucked inside the beautiful, lush countryside of the south of France. Similar to the wealthy Catledge estate where the film mainly takes place,Magic in the Moonlight holds an opulent view with momentary stretches of amusement and boredom.

Nostalgia runs deep in Allen’s films from the ’00s. They usually take place abroad in the extravagant estates of the wealthy often perched over a lush English, French, or Spanish countryside where time itself has been embalmed and halted, implicitly escaping the orbit of the frenzied cult of the new that defines the United States. The films also quite often shuttle back to the Roaring Twenties, a time that Allen clearly idealizes, where the ideas of Freud, Nietzsche, Darwin, and Spengler coursed throughout the Western art and cultural scenes like blood through a body. His 2011 film Midnight in Paris draws this nostalgia to the foreground as Gil (Owen Wilson), a contemporary writer, time-travels back to the ’20s of the Lost Generation at the stroke of midnight. Much of the film’s humor derives from the “historic” sequences resembling more of a cliché of Gil’s mind than having any reality unto themselves; Ernest Hemingway speaks in short declarative sentences, and Zelda Fitzgerald drunkenly flirts with most of the men in the room.

Magic in the Moonlight is no different. It begins in 1928 in Berlin, the height of the Weimar Republic’s decadence. A bronzed hue like a faded photograph bathes the scene as we stand outside an Art Deco theater. Inside, while Allen captures the Orientalist magic show of Wei Ling Soo, the alter stage ego of an Englishman named Stanley (Colin Firth), the rich red textures of the theater’s curtains and the golden proscenium arch majestically frame the action. In the film’s next scene, Stanley and his friend Howard (Simon McBurney) drink in a café while Howard enlists Stanley’s help to expose an American charlatan named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who pretends to be a spiritualist. As this unfolds, we watch a woman in the background in top hat and sequenced outfit sing behind them, the resurrection of the iconographic image of Marlene Dietrich from Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930).

Yet unlike the contorted and at times perverse sexual politics that electrified the films of von Sternberg and Dietrich, Magic in the Moonlight seems devoid of sexuality altogether, becoming a rather lifeless, cerebral film that at times falls into simplistic one-dimensional character traits and gender stereotypes. Much has already been written regarding the problematic sexual politics of Allen’s films, which I largely do not want to revisit here. Rather than over-personalizing the reliance upon some gender clichés within his films as prima facie evidence of a distinct character flaw of Allen’s, it should be remembered that the entire generation of United States male filmmakers who were deeply influenced by classical Hollywood cinema and European art cinema that Allen belongs to equally held rather problematic, if not downright misogynistic understandings of gender relations. (See Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese for examples of the “problematic” views; as for “downright misogynistic”, look to Brian De Palma, George Lucas, and Clint Eastwood).

Allen, to his credit, more consistently than any of his male cohorts, has written well-developed parts for female characters, which can be most recently witnessed in Cate Blanchet’s amazing performance of a woman disintegrating under the pressure of a sexist world of materialism and deceit in Blue Jasmine (2013). Here one need only contrast Allen’s film to Clint Eastwood’s completely paternalistic 2004 film Million Dollar Baby, where female self-empowerment gets undermined by daddy issues and the need to kill off its female protagonist who has literally fought her way to the top by film’s end. There’s also the matter of his equally idiotic 2008 film Changeling, where implicit blame is cast upon a single female mother for losing her child as we watch her suffer for its remaining 141 minutes.

Magic in the Moonlight, however, associates its most feminine characters as the most gullible towards Sophie’s spiritualist hokum. Lady Catledge (Jacki Weaver) eagerly squanders her family’s fortune by building Sophie a spiritualist institute and subsidizing her practices. The vapidity behind Catledge’s outlook fully manifests itself during a séance where the only questions she can think to ask her dead husband is if she should sell off the summer house and if he was always faithful to her. Her spiritual quest is nothing more than a narcissistic journey to provide order and certainty to her empty, superficial, and thoughtless life. None of her questions venture towards larger, more universal concerns but incessantly retract to the estate and marriage bed, the only two things she knows.

Brice (Hamish Linklater), Lady Catledge’s wan and effete son, equally swoons for Sophie’s charms and looks. In place of a personality, Brice attempts to bribe Sophie into marrying him with promises of riches and exotic trips. He purchases the entire dress selection in one of the stores that she visited with him. Wealth, once again, clearly substitutes for a life without imagination and passion.

Stanley, on the other hand, a rather arrogant and brash man’s man, constantly dismisses Sophie’s spiritualism as nothing but empty “twaddle”, at least in the beginning. Much of the film’s humor derives from Stanley’s general soliloquies of disdain against religion. He calls those who believe in religion as those “desperate for a little hope in a world that has none.” Elsewhere he laments: “I don’t know who I loathe more: those who use simple tricks to prey on the gullible or the gullible who are so stupid they deserve what they get.”

Emma Stone and Colin Firth in Magic in the Moonlight

This association of the feminine with emotions and mindlessness and the masculine with logic and sensibility has a long history in American culture. The dichotomy has often been employed as leverage to entirely dismiss women’s concerns as unimportant and superficial. Furthermore, it often cast popular culture as a feminine realm not worthy of study and attention while championing other arts like theatre and painting as “serious” endeavors. Not coincidentally, Magic in the Moonlight does the same by casting Sophie’s spiritualism as the realm of dolts and the emasculated rich while implying Stanley’s magic show as something worthy of acclaim and envy despite its dependence upon a colonial legacy of “yellowface” and stereotypes. Furthermore, this binary becomes problematized when Stanley buys into Sophie’s hokum that blurs the boundary lines between legitimate magic and spiritual sham.

Yet Sophie shows just as much skill as Stanley when it comes to her art. When contacting the dead or receiving “mental vibrations” from the spirit world, Sophie provides the perfect balance of a swindler’s trickery and faux earnestness. Like most good con men, she knows that the key to hooking in an eager and lucrative mark requires not complete authenticity of her actions but a good performance that equally indicates its own theatricality and believability. Her eyes flutter ridiculously as she is seized by a vision while her hands wave above her head like an antenna. Not coincidentally, Stanley announces, “Here comes the usual theatrical fertilizer,” before the moment he completely buys into her sham.

At its best, Magic in the Moonlight provides a refreshing critique of religion and explores its attraction to those who consider themselves its most vocal opponents. Stanley’s near maniacal desire to exorcize spiritualism wherever it summons itself reveals another form of fundamentalism. A true atheist is not obsessed about disproving the spirit world but goes about his/her business without much concern for God. Stanley’s fundamentalist atheism suggests strong doubts lurking within himself. His blasphemy against God resembles nothing but an inverted prayer to ward off his own attraction to the spirituality that he ostensibly dismisses. His protests are more to himself than to others, but the film continuously rejects the notion of the existence of God by instead framing religion as a talisman used to conjure order and purpose to people’s random and often empty lives.

Magic in the Moonlight resonates strongly with the existentialist skepticism that was commonly found in many of Allen’s films of the ’70s, where the waning influence of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche still held some cultural sway. Now, such an attitude seems completely foreign in a land where the previous United States president actually believed in the Christian Rapture along with many other Americans. So Allen must safely ensconce his views into the fabric of the past far away from the misguided cultural politics of the present that are utterly foreign to him. Magic in the Moonlight’s unbridled atheism in many ways reveals the nostalgia that haunts even Allen’s ’70s films. Even then he longed for those times when the materialist systems of Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche provided the lifeblood of intellectual and cultural life. Manhattan in the ’70s served as an outpost where such ideas still held residual intellectual heft, but all of that was to soon change. If he wanted to remain true to his ideas, Allen would have to increasingly abandon the United States and the present to do so.

Yet in spite of the film’s promising atheist spirit, it also abandons its belief of well-developed characters. Stanley represents the callous intellect while Sophie embodies emotional release. This mind/body split permeates much of Allen’s work, but normally it plagues all the characters in equal measure. Wine and psychotherapy dominate many of his earlier films to help its characters overcome intellectual and emotional blocks that prevent their full engagement with the present. Annie Hall, for example, needs to smoke weed before having sex in order to stop overthinking during it.

By contrast, Magic in the Moonlight‘s Stanley is all mind. In a rather unconvincing scene, Sophie questions Stanley if he has had any sexual attraction to her during their time together. He astonishingly replies: “Don’t tell me you’re experiencing romantic feelings for me? You’ve conquered my mind. Do you also need to conquer my heart?” This seems more wish fulfillment than any plausible scenario where an older heterosexual man remains completely clueless regarding the sexual tension that normally accompanies his befriending an attractive younger woman. Wouldn’t it be nice to have women like Sophie throw themselves at you even though one might be double her age?

The lack of sexual chemistry between Firth and Stone becomes most apparent when their characters flee a thunderstorm and end up in an observatory together. The scene is reminiscent of one found in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), where Sean Thorton (John Wayne) and Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) escape from a similar thunderstorm by entering a chapel. But unlike the fleeting desirous looks that Sean and Mary Kate exchange while he attempts to warm her by holding her close and eventually causing her to flee due to the palpable mutual attraction, Stanley can only see Sophie as a pathetic drenched figure. He is unable to even notice the vague sexual implications when she insists that he hold her close to warm her.

Overall, Magic in the Moonlight persists in being an overly cerebral affair where ideas trump characters and intellect overcomes emotion. This makes it an interesting film, but not a thoroughly enjoyable one. It is the type of film that Stanley would have made where people are assigned into specific categories to exemplify particular traits. However, it lacks the messiness of actual life where emotion and intellect intertwine and compete within each of us. Instead, the film serves as an interesting investigation of faith against a picturesque background, remaining at the surface of things just like Lady and Brice Catledge. Even its extras offer only a scant 12 minutes of promotional footage that provide for no insights whatsoever other than praising Woody Allen’s genius. Although the film welcomingly embodies an atheist spirit of a past age, it severs its connection to the complexities of living in the present.

RATING 2 / 10