Having produced a new film every year since 1982, it might be easy to take for granted the bounty of riches that is Woody Allen’s filmography. And amid controversy after controversy, a skeptic might question why the director keeps making films about misanthropic middle-age white men seeking young women in their twenties. That skeptic would be half-right: there’s no denying that Allen’s volume of work is not without its share of redundancies and disappointments, though there’s something almost virtuous about Allen’s work ethic. Whether or not an Allen film works for its intended audience could very well depend on their tolerance for his insecurities and neurosis. This makes his annual summertime efforts seem especially appropriate. There aren’t very many certainties in life, but with every passing summer comes a new Woody Allen film, and for that, there’s something oddly comforting about that.
Comforting would be the choice word in describing Magic in the Moonlight. I doubt anyone would make a case that this is a significant Allen picture (I’d love to read that argument), but it is a film of simple pleasures. Those pleasures stem from Allen’s relaxed formalism and verbal acrobatics. There was a time, particularly with some of his films in the late 90s, where Allen’s visual style suffered a bit of a regression. Though with his recent European rendezvous, beginning with Vicky Cristina Barcelona and highlighted in Magic in the Moonlight, the director has seen an uptick in his visual presentation. While Allen hasn’t taken much of an experimental risk in his filmmaking - at least not since the formally rigorous Husbands and Wives - his images have become much more conventionally striking. Credit goes to cinematographers Darius Khondji and Javier Aguirresarobe, who have realized a new era of Allen films with remarkable visual acuity.
So with a more composed visual palette comes an energized Allen and while Magic in the Moonlight may see him regurgitating old material, but there’s a particular freshness to how it’s realized. The misanthropic middle-age white man is still there, as is the young female of his adoration, though it’s played with a bit of nuance. Here, it’s Colin Firth functioning as the Woody Allen-proxy - he’s an accomplished magician named Stanley who is tasked by a fellow magician to disprove the readings of a mystic named Sophie (Emma Stone). Stanley is the typical Woody Allen protagonist - unsociable, full of himself, and skeptical of anything remotely spiritual. But he grows increasingly convinced of Sophie’s psychic ability, to the point that he renounces his skepticism.
The pieces fall where one expects without much to rattle the cage. So with a predictable narrative, I grew to appreciate Allen’s camera work. He really knows how to handle conversations in parties of three especially well - it reminded me a bit of how Richard Linklater maintains a shot to allow for conversation. Magic in the Moonlight has a couple of notable scenes like this where Firth and Stone riff off one another that are especially effective in developing their chemistry.
Allen makes Woody Allen films. It sounds redundant but the point here is that there aren’t any other filmmakers who can produce the sort of works that Allen accomplishes. Magic may be considered a minor work in his canon, but within the context of most any other filmmakers oeuvre it would stand as a revelation. The way he works with actors, the richness of his dialogue, and the incredible production of Allen’s films often go unnoticed unless there’s something especially new to the way he works - a performance as huge as Cate Blanchet’s in Blue Jasmine or the science-fiction element of Midnight in Paris. Magic in the Moonlight might be simple, but in that simplicity is a world of delights. It’s a formidable work from a director who has proven himself time and time again.