Friday, September 5, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

That Voodoo That Doesn't Work So Well
A Pratfall of Faith

Chief Dan George's Old Lodge Skins character in Little Big Man probably said it best; after a botched ascending of his spirit that results in a rain-storm that he decides to escape (only physically) he rasps "Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn't."

It's that way with movie-making, too. Even a director who makes a classic film, can make a total disaster (even if an interesting one) the next time out. There's no easy formula for making great films; if there were, then Robert McKee would have more credits in his IMDB listing than the TV-Abraham and some "Barbie" direct-to-video releases. No, even the best and most consistent of directors—say, Ernst Lubitsch—couldn't make a masterpiece every single time. Given what it takes to make movies—the coordination, the expense, the collaboration, the casting (and the cast's individual moods on any given day of shooting), the weather, even the catering can affect a movie—it is something of a miracle that the things manage to come all. And the great ones...well, the great ones have an undefinable quality, a God Particle, that make them rise above the journeyman exercise and become indelible and special. What that quality is, no one could tell you while making the movie—it's just that something...*clicks*...sometimes by design, sometimes by the happy accident in the editing room, or on the stage, that unanticipated sparkle of stardust that makes a classic.

Woody Allen's had a good run lately with his international films—the British films with Scarlett Johanssen, the Spanish Vicky Christina Barcelona, the sweetly ethereal Midnight in Paris, and the slightly spastic To Rome with Love. His last film, Blue Jasmine, garnered almost universal acclaim. It was about time for him to stumble, ala Stardust Memories, Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown, or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Those are the ones I'm not crazy about, but, like the Coen Brothers, Allen can be polarizing, it's actually more rare for him to make a movie that everybody agrees on, than to make a genuine stinker.

But Magic in the Moonlight is one of those. A great cast (Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, and Jacki Weaver) is wasted in an exercise of warmed-over material (which Allen can be really good at saving—one can see echoes of all manner of things in Allen's movies once he lost his TV-movie amateurishness with Annie Hall, but his spin is always a little deeper and gives a fresh perspective, if only, like Blue Jasmine, to take a classic like A Streetcar Named Desire and put it into a contemporary sensibility).   
Stanley Crawford (Firth) is a professional magician and magical skeptic. As the magician Wei Ling Soo, Stanley stages big, broad set-pieces—making an elephant disappear on-stage, sawing a woman in half, transporting himself across stage—but for him, it's all mechanics, no mystery. Off-stage, the magic stops. The make-up comes off and Stanley reveals himself as a surly diva, contemptuous of his audiences of rubes, because his "day-job" is as a de-bunker. He makes magic for a living, but doesn't believe in it, demystifying and debunking it, in his life.

A friend tells him about a mystic, Sophie Baker (Stone), who has the well-to-do family Catledge in thrall. The Catledge scion (Hamish Linklater) is in love with her; his mother (Weaver) uses her to contact her recently-deceased husband. The friend, also a skeptic, hasn't been able to see what Sophie is doing to pull off the charade and is beginning to think she might be a genuine clairvoyant and asks Stanley to observe and see if he can find out how she does the voodoo that she does seemingly so well.*
Sophie impresses Stanley (she seems to know a lot about him although they've never met) and a seance that produces some knocking "Yes/No" answers and a floating candle he can't explain makes him think that maybe she might be truly clairvoyant. Not only that, he begins to have feelings for her, and his cynical facade begins to crumble as something approaching belief and faith creeps into his own psyche. Sophie's unexplainable powers is a catalyst for the worldly (and world-weary) man for whom there is no magic left in the world...except (let's spell it out) the Possibility of Love. It's Metaphor 101, and where Allen (in his "earlier, funnier" and certainly more romantic days) might have made something out of this...even a it is quite charmless and devoid of any magic...not even the glimmer of fantasia that informed earlier films.  
Part of the lack of charm may be the chemistry that doesn't exist between Firth and Stone. Stone has that problem that a lot of actresses have with "Woodian" dialogue—they don't sound like they'd speak it, let alone think it.
** There's something just a little mannered in the delivery (even Diane Keaton occasionally had this problem when being too direct). You can believe it when it's someone naturally airy as in Blue Jasmine, but here Stone's psychic appears to be all show.

But the real problem is Firth and his character. Despite his reputation as a fan-favorite, Firth has always been something of a cold fish and excelled at playing them—in fact, that's part of why he's so popular as his Mr. Darcy from the "Pride and Prejudice" mini-series starts out as a lip-curling judge and warms up under the tutelage of Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet. Here, there isn't much of that redemption on display. Even smitten, his skeptical magician is snide and charmless, and we've spent so much time with him when he's downright nasty, that the character never really recovers any sympathy. I spent an awful lot of time in this film squirming in my seat uncomfortably over his baldly insulting dialogue and the way no one ever calls him out on it. He's Henry Higgins without the ability to cajole and prompt, a total "Prig-malion," in fact. Yes, he may be capable of falling in love, but it would difficult to imagine anyone loving him back. It's partly the fault of Allen's script and partly Firth's handling of it, but this year's Allen film has none of the magic promised in the title.

* Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me" is the Main Title theme and runs throughout the film.

** It's part of the reason why Allen stammers so much when he acts—he's feeling his way along the thought process to come to the thought—it's a tried and true method that has worked wonders for such prevaricaters and obfuscaters as Jimmy Stewart and Hugh Grant.  When Kenneth Branagh had to play the "Woody Allen" stand-in in Celebrity, he stammered.

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