Woody Allen’s most recent offering augured so well. Colin Firth is a perennial favourite, and it’s impossible not to love Emma Stone. The South of France in the 1920s; séances and charlatans; a classic adversarial romance. With ingredients this good, it promised pure viewing pleasure. How could it fail?
Yet fail it does. Stanley (Firth) as famous illusionist and sceptic, determined to expose the lovely psychic Sophie (Stone) as a fraud, plods the exact trajectory the audience would expect. Yet his circuit from incurable cynic to enthusiastic embracer of mystery, back to declaring everything spiritual to be humbug – save romantic love, of course, the only real magic – lacks either sufficient charm or basic plot credibility to make the story compelling. (The predictability is so absolute that such an outline can hardly count as a spoiler.) Stanley’s expressions of his materialist philosophy are hackneyed and wooden, and the romance rarely rises above the token. As Craig Mathieson remarked recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, previous Allen flops “improve simply by comparison” with this one.
One virtue Magic in the Moonlight can legitimately claim: consistency. The premise of the film – that nothing whatsoever exists beyond the material universe, what you see is what you get – has been more precisely (and more winsomely) expressed by Allen throughout his career. In a 2010 interview, Allen met a question about the “sound and fury” of life with a magnificent diatribe about the utter meaninglessness of everything that happens in the world. “Eventually you die; eventually the sun burns out”, he shrugs. Every hundred years a “big toilet flushes … and everybody on the planet’s gone, and a new set comes in, and they’re full of worry and anxious … and then (he snaps his fingers) gone”.
In theory at least, many people believe in this ultimate futility. But as Allen acknowledges, “you can’t actually live your life like that”. He suggests that the job of the artist – of the filmmaker – is to figure out why, given these “facts”, you would bother to get up in the morning, to keep living, to care about anything at all. “It’s a tough assignment”, he admits. But it makes sense of what Magic in the Moonlight is at least trying to do.
Setting to one side the nagging strangeness of this particular piece of dogma – that the underlying realities of life are somehow so antagonistic to the actual business of living – it seems clear that the film does not live up to this noble, if ultimately doomed, artistic purpose. Not only does its philosophical thrust lack the vigour or tragic grandeur of a Nietzsche (referenced throughout), but it can only revert to the same tired Hollywood manoeuvre by which romantic love is forced to carry all the possible meaning of life. If the job of the artist is, in fact, to impart meaning where there is none, Magic in the Moonlight falls well short of the alchemy required.