Do Rot­ten People Make Great Art?

Maybe, But Woody Allen’s New Film Of­fers Lit­tle Ev­i­dence of That

Forward Magazine - - Arts & Culture - By Ezra Glin­ter Ezra Glin­ter is the deputy arts edi­tor of the For­ward. Con­tact him at glin­ter@for­ or on Twit­ter, @EzraG

Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead.

I ad­mit it’s hard to say when that was. Would it have been in the late 1980s, af­ter the dark and soul­ful “Crimes and Mis­de­meanors”? Was it in the late ’90s, af­ter “Sweet and Low­down,” star­ring an in­com­pa­ra­ble Sean Penn? Or was it ear­lier in this decade, af­ter the light but charm­ing “Mid­night in Paris”?

One thing is for sure — it was be­fore he made his lat­est movie, “Magic in the Moon­light,” and it was be­fore he was ac­cused, again, of mo­lest­ing his adopted daugh­ter, Dy­lan Farrow. You can de­bate the pro­pri­ety of dis­cussing Allen’s al­leged mis­do­ings in the con­text of his films. But if you want to ar­gue that rot­ten people can also make great art, “Magic in the Moon­light” pro­vides lit­tle ev­i­dence of that.

The movie is a pe­riod piece, tak­ing place in Europe at the tail end of the 1920s. It opens at a per­for­mance in Berlin by the ma­gi­cian Wei Ling Soo, who is re­ally an English­man named Stan­ley Craw­ford (played by Colin Firth) ex­ploit­ing the decade’s enthusiasm for chi­nois­erie.

It takes only a brief cabaret-side chat be­tween Stan­ley and his friend Howard Burkan (Si­mon McBur­ney) to set up the plot and move the ac­tion to the South of France. There we meet the wealthy widow Grace Ca­tledge (Jacki Weaver) and her son, Brice (Hamish Lin­klater), who are ac­quain­tances of Stan­ley and Howard.

To both men’s dis­tress, the Ca­tledges have been taken in by a self-pro­claimed medium, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), and her schem­ing mother (Mar­cia Gay Harden). While Sophie se­duces Ca­tledge

mère by chan­nel­ing the widow’s dead hus­band, she is wooed by the clue­less son, who serenades her on the ukulele. The mother pledges to set up a re­search in­sti­tute for spir­i­tual phe­nom­ena; her son prom­ises yacht trips to the Greek is­lands and piles of cloth­ing and jewels.

Like many real-life stage ma­gi­cians, Stan­ley is not only an il­lu­sion­ist, but also a pro­fes­sional skep­tic of the para­nor­mal. And so it be­comes his job to de­bunk Sophie’s dime-store mys­ti­cism and save the poor Ca­tledges from their own gulli­bil­ity. By now you can imag­ine what hap­pens next. Will the hand­some Stan­ley and the beau­ti­ful Sophie — he a cyn­i­cal ra­tio­nal­ist, she a starry-eyed swindler — dis­cover that de­spite their dif­fer­ences they ac­tu­ally have feel­ings for each other? Will those feel­ings be tested, and at some point seem hope­less? Will love even­tu­ally tri­umph, and will ev­ery­one live hap­pily ever af­ter?

Maybe a spoiler alert would have been in or­der be­fore pos­ing such leading ques­tions. But it’s the movie, with its trans­par­ent plot, that spoils it­self. It may be that Allen has mas­tered the art of screen­writ­ing too well; this script feels like he wrote it while in a trance — and not the kind where you chan­nel the Muse. I imag­ine it could be a use­ful tool for teach­ing as­pir­ing rom-com writ­ers the ba­sic for­mula on which to in­no­vate. “Magic in the Moon­light” never gets to that sec­ond part.

It’s not all bad, of course. Vis­ually the film is gor­geous. The Mediter­ranean scenery is ex­quis­ite, as are the coun­try man­sions and vin­tage cars. The act­ing is ev­ery­thing you could want it to be, es­pe­cially by Firth and Eileen Atkins, who plays Stan­ley’s maiden aunt, Vanessa. And Allen him­self can still sup­ply witty di­a­logue here and there: “I al­ways thought the un­seen world was a good place to open a restau­rant,” Stan­ley jokes. “Spir­its have to eat some­where.”

But none of this com­pen­sates for the tired plot, or for the te­dious rep­e­ti­tion of old tropes.

When it comes to a di­rec­tor as pro­lific as Allen, you ex­pect some over­lap, and that’s not a bad thing. The un­mask­ing of a for­tuneteller was a cen­tral plot point in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” (2010), and ref­er­ences to stage magic popped up in movies like “Ra­dio Days” (1987) and “Broad­way Danny Rose” (1984). Both themes could have been per­fectly de­light­ful here if the rest of the movie weren’t so bad. But Allen’s other pre­oc­cu­pa­tions have be­come weari­some, and even dis­turb­ing.

The philo­soph­i­cal heart of the movie lies in a se­ries of ques­tions that were al­ready bor­ing in the ’20s, and are even more so now. If God is dead and the ma­te­rial world is ev­ery­thing, can life have mean­ing? Is it bet­ter to be happy and wrong than to be mis­er­able and right? Will love save us in the end? It’s not just that Allen has been ask­ing these ques­tions his en­tire ca­reer — it’s that the an­swers he’s ar­rived at are so self-serv­ing.

For a long time there have been trou­ble­some sex­ual and ro­man­tic themes in Allen’s movies. They were easy to brush off be­cause of the master­pieces that he made, or be­cause he’s old and out of touch, or be­cause it didn’t seem to mat­ter any­more. “Magic in the Moon­light” isn’t go­ing to have a great ef­fect on the cul­ture ei­ther, truth be told.

But times have changed, and what seemed like harm­less foibles now ap­pear in a more sin­is­ter light. Here, as in movies like “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995) and “What­ever Works” (2009), we have a beau­ti­ful younger woman pur­su­ing an older man who seems not only obliv­i­ous to her charms, but also ac­tively un­in­ter­ested in them. When she fi­nally breaks through, he has the power to ac­cept or re­ject her, take her or leave her. It’s a ju­ve­nile fan­tasy in ev­ery way.

In “Magic in the Moon­light” the his­tor­i­cal set­ting makes it worse. When Stan­ley gives a press con­fer­ence about Sophie’s séance ta­ble suc­cess, he speaks for her. Sophie’s main con­sid­er­a­tion is mar­riage and, as if tak­ing her cue from some 19th­cen­tury novel, snag­ging the best hus­band she can en­tice. She may have her wiles, but it’s the men who are in charge.

Granted, that’s how things were back then. And I’m not ask­ing Allen, or any­one else, to tai­lor his films to fit con­tem­po­rary mores. It’s per­fectly fair — in­deed nec­es­sary — to de­pict sit­u­a­tions that are un­just. But “Magic in the Moon­light” is not the un­mask­ing of in­jus­tice; it’s a fan­tasy of a time when it was ac­cept­able.

This goes not just for gen­der is­sues, but also for racial and eco­nomic ones. There is the un­crit­i­cal ori­en­tal­ism of Stan­ley’s stage per­sona and, de­spite a com­ment from Sophie about be­ing from the work­ing class, the con­spic­u­ous ab­sence of work­ing people. Even nov­el­ists like Henry James and Edith Whar­ton, whose up­per-crust set­tings are evoked by Allen’s movie, also de­picted ser­vants.

Yet all is sup­posed to be well be­cause the char­ac­ters fall in love. And this, per­haps, is the movie’s great­est flaw. It’s a fic­tional en­act­ment of Allen’s no­to­ri­ous line when he mar­ried Soon-Yi Previn, “The heart wants what it wants.” With all due re­spect to Emily Dickinson, from whom Allen cribbed that phrase, “The heart wants what it wants” is nei­ther a recipe for moral be­hav­ior nor a good premise for a movie. Hav­ing love tri­umph com­pletely against ob­sta­cles that were never for­mi­da­ble is bor­ing, and it doesn’t mit­i­gate the movie’s other flaws. It’s when the heart wants but the heart doesn’t get — or at least, shouldn’t get — that com­pelling sit­u­a­tions re­sult.

These were once the movies that Allen made, even when it came to come­dies. At the end of “An­nie Hall” (1977), Woody Allen as Alvy Singer doesn’t get the girl. In “Man­hat­tan” (1979) Woody Allen as Isaac Davis loses both the girl he had and the woman he wants. Even a movie like “Love and Death” (1975), a philo­soph­i­cal farce whose ex­is­ten­tial con­cerns pre­fig­ure the ones in “Magic in the Moon­light,” ends with an ex­e­cu­tion.

None of this, of course, is go­ing to al­ter Allen’s rep­u­ta­tion. He’s made enough great films at this point that he doesn’t have to worry about his legacy, at least from an artis­tic stand­point. Like count­less other Woody Allen flicks from the past few decades, “Magic in the Moon­light” will be for­got­ten soon enough. For­tu­nately for ev­ery­one, not even a séance will re­vive it.


Twi­light’s Last Gleam­ing: Woody Allen di­rects a scene from ‘Magic in the Moon­light.’


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