Dir. Woody Allen
It’s no secret that a lot of critics feel Woody lost his fastball a long time ago. The director, whose work began in the late ’60s as ribald (and hilarious) comedy, before morphing into something far deeper and more satisfying by the late ’70s — certainly his most critically acclaimed work with the back-to-back release of the Oscar-winning Annie Hall in ‘77 and Manhattan in ‘79 — has, over the last two decades produced some 22 features, many of which utterly forgettable. For every minor hit he’s had — 2011’s Midnight in Paris, 2013’s Blue Jasmine — he’s had eight duds.
It has long been my contention that his single biggest issue has been the insane pace of his production. Allen has said he writes his next screenplay in six weeks and starts shooting shortly thereafter, allowing the near-octogenarian to average better than a film-a-year. Many of his films, even the total failures have at least a glimmer of something salvageable in them, something a seasoned writer with his ear for dialogue could take and reshape to a more accomplished sort of level, but it appears in his haste to finish the script and get a move on with the production, he eschews further drafts in favor of just loading the camera with film and calling out “action.” The only thing that has changed in recent years is Allen eschewing his beloved New York to shoot in some of the finest cities and regions in West Europe.
His latest film is set primarily in the South of France in 1928, but it begins in Berlin, in the middle of fantastic magic act. Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a world-famous magician whose act requires him to dress in Asian costume and fake long moustache as his illusionist alter-ego, Wei Ling Soo. One night after a rousing performance, the caustic and highly skeptical Stanley is approached by one of his few old and dear friends, Howard (Simon McBurney), who convinces him to come away with him to the French Rivera in order to help debunk a young, comely self-proclaimed mystic, Sophie (Emma Stone), who, along with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), has apparently completely fooled several members of a prominent, fabulously wealthy family into believing what Howard is certain is total bunk, only he hasn’t been able to solve the manner in which she is pulling her tricks.
With a burr in his saddle (the officious and highly pompous Stanley is greatly fond of seeking out these fakes and calling them out in public), Stanley agrees to accompany Howard and the two make their way to the fabulous estate, where they meet Brice (Hamish Linklater, always a joy), the young sire of the family, entirely smitten by Sophie and hoping she’ll agree to marry him, and Grace (Jacki Weaver), the elderly widowed matriarch of the clan, desperate to make “contact” with her long-dead husband. At first, Stanley can’t fathom Sophie’s tricks — she seems, by all accounts, entirely sincere and unflappable, leading séances and quick “impression” readings that are eerily prescient — though he remains utterly convinced of his skeptical world view. That is, until the unctuous lout takes young Sophie with him to visit a dear aunt of his living nearby (played by the winsome Eileen Atkins), and is forced to admit her knowledge of well-hidden family secrets is absolutely inexplicable.
The film goes on in this manner — rude, arrogant Stanley being forced to conceive a world in which his long and deeply held skepticism might well have been utterly misplaced — while the two completely mismatched characters are meant to be falling in love. But it is but one of Allen’s colossal misfires in this film that his two leads — being nearly 30 years apart in age, and further yet in terms of personality — share precious little chemistry. At first, Stanley is too critical and scathing to even consider such a thing, but then when he deigns to believe in her otherworldly powers, other glimmers of things start entering the picture.
But none of it makes terribly much sense — Stanley’s mood swings on the subject of Sophie are easily the most unbelievable aspect of the film and forces poor Colin Firth into twisting himself up in fully unsupported gyrations, character-wise — least of all why such an enchanting and beautiful young creature as Sophie would ever consider taking a pompous curmudgeon (whom, we are told, would much rather spend his day at home alone working on card tricks than engaging the outside world) over a dedicated and fabulously wealthy young man such as Brice, who seems hopelessly devoted to her. Allen would have it that the magic in the title refers to the blinding authority of our hearts, which overrule our rational notions and desires despite our best efforts to curb its hedonistic impulses, but nothing save a hypnotic trance or powerful narcotic would be able to make sense of this gushing mess. What is most shocking about the film is how little fun Allen seems to be having with its conceit — a winsome vehicle by which he should have been able to mine Stanley’s crisis of faith and confidence for maximum laughs and impact. Instead, billed as a “romantic comedy” the film hardly bothers with the latter and fails horrendously with the former. Perhaps if he’d run it several more times through the aging comedic genius of his brain, he would have created something more satisfying: As it is, like its pompous protagonist, it’s a painful bore that overstays its welcome far beyond its relatively benign running time.