I haven’t seen many Woody Allen films, by golly, he’s directed 53 so far. I’m trying to change that. I think his films are often fun genre-benders that play with the conventions of cinema. I’ve seen Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Husbands and Wives (1992), Midnight in Paris (2011), and, as of a few minutes ago, Magic in the Moonlight (2014). Regardless of what you think of Woody Allen, you ought to respect the talent of a person who can make a whole film every single year since the late 1960s.
I look forward to watching old Woody Allen films I haven’t seen yet because I’m always expecting them to be as fantastic as Annie Hall. To take what a friend of mine said in the words he didn’t use verbatim, “no end of a film quite destroyed me like Annie Hall.” Here is a man who made MANY really dope films that come on screen and say, “hey, I’m not doing that bullshit you want me to do. This is MY film.” And we sit there along for the ride. Think of the fantastic way he blends comedy and drama. His films aren’t stereotypically actor-heavy but I think his films have some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in them. There’s a small scene in The Purple Rose of Cairo where Mia Farrow stumbles on a few words when talking to her abusive husband and it blew me away. It was so realistic and human and vulnerable. Or the scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are breaking up and Woody Allen’s character says something along the lines of, “mad? Of course I’m not mad. I’m devastated.” That line absolutely destroyed me because I feel like I rarely see characters say what they’re feeling in a way that isn’t tedious exposition. It felt honest to me.
All this being said, I thought Magic in the Moonlight was pretty decent. I wasn’t crazy about the age-difference in the two leads, I’ll tell you what. But I feel like the film didn’t do as well critically because it is a Woody Allen film. “Whaaaa? But you just praised him for two paragraphs.” Yeah, I know what I wrote. The unfair problem with the auteur theory is that, by studying a certain director, we compare his/her films to their previous ones. E.g. “I liked The Dark Knight Rises but it was no The Dark Knight.” Agreed, it’s not The Dark Knight because it’s a completely different film made a few years later. That may be an unfair comparison in hindsight because it’s a trilogy and the characters are the same. Please remember, these articles are hastily written. A different e.g. “I liked Magic in the Moonlight but it was no Annie Hall.” That’s better.
I had this problem a lot when I started giving ratings on IMDB. I’d watch a film, say like Boyhood which I gave a 9/10, and then I’d watch another film likeeeee The Guardians of the Galaxy which I think I gave an 8/10. The whole time I watched The Guardians of the Galaxy, I was thinking of what IMDB rating I’d give this. “Oh, this is a 7/10… But you gave that other film a 7/10 and this is way better. Okay, 9/10. Whoa, wait, you’d put this up there with Boyhood? Yeah, maybe. No, maybe not. 8/10.” Then the rest of my movie going experience is just me jumping between numbers. It’s a totally mediocre way to watch anything. And I think that’s a problem with modern Woody Allen films. Since he puts out SO many films, people can’t help but to compare it to Annie Hall which came out in 1977. Rating films, at least for me, does not work. One should look at a film and decide if what the film was trying to do worked or not. Under that criteria, I think Magic in the Moonlight worked as a romantic-comedy with a fun, albeit very slight, twist of the genre conventions. What I think didn’t work was the age-gap in the leads but, ya know, can’t win ’em all.
Let’s pretend Magic in the Moonlight was made by an unknown director and was exactly the same. I would praise its realistic dialogue (not the BEST dialogue, but I didn’t groan during any dialogue scenes), how fucking beautiful the film is (every shot is basically a painting, look at that deep focus and that use of sun!), and the way they introduce Emma Stone’s character. It reminded my of The Third Man (1949) where they talk about a character and how amazing (or in the case of The Third Man, brutal and amazing) they are, how they have impressed whoever is talking about them, etc, etc. So you have this image in your head of this person and you’re not meeting them and it drives you crazy. And then you meet them and you’re just blown away. While meeting Emma Stone’s character didn’t blow me away as much as meeting Harry Lime in The Third Man or John Doe in Se7en (1995), I was still impressed with by the time of meeting her, I knew what everyone thinks about her.
Let’s take a quick look at the structure of this film. Out of all the Allen films I’ve seen, Magic in the Moonlight seems most like a Save the Cat type of story. It’s almost paint by numbers structure which is okay but I think I’m at a point in my life where I’m tired of hearing about Save the Cat. You watch the film and then the characters get to their low point and you think, “oh no, will they make it out of this?” but you know they will because that’s Hollywood. But you don’t think that with Woody Allen because his endings are often more poignant and sad. I wish Magic in the Moonlight cut to black on the Medium Close Up of Colin Firth after he hears the knocking. Slight smile, turn of the head. CUT TO BLACK! Instead of what we really saw. But that’s totally prescriptive and I obviously can’t go and change the film. I just think an ending like that would have made the film more memorable. It’s weird to think that the last ten seconds of a film can change an opinion on a film that much.
So, Magic in the Moonlight wasn’t horrible. It wasn’t awesome either. But it looked pretty, the acting was solid, the story was fun with it being a magician trying to uncover another magician, and, well, that’s about it. Maybe I would have seen this film differently had I not known Woody Allen’s work from before. But it’s almost impossible to separate the name from a body of work. For better or worse.