After decades spent finding his own voice, and at least one decade of ridicule for using it over and over again, Woody Allen seems to have entered an intriguing and inspired new phase of his career: ripping other people off. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
Not that Woody Allen has ever been able to hide his influences. His early broad comedies owed an obvious debt to The Marx Bros. (Bananas, certainly), and many of his mid-career art house films were directly inspired by filmmakers like Federico Fellini (Stardust Memories) and Ingmar Bergman (Interiors). But last year’s Blue Jasmine was more than an ode to the works of Tennessee Williams, it was an outright lift, re-appropriating the basic plot and story structure of A Streetcar Named Desire and transplanting it into a modern era, finding new meaning and still-relevant tragedy in a tale that already seemed timeless.
Woody Allen’s latest, Magic in the Moonlight, bears more similarities to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion than are worth noting here. A book could easily be written, but I have neither the time nor… well, I don’t have the time. But whereas Blue Jasmine altered the context of Streetcar in order to make new and salient points about the 21st Century bourgeois, Magic in the Moonlight uses Pygmalion as the framework for a playful new tale of skeptical intelligentsia at odds with the hopeful hoi polloi. It’s set in the past and filmed like an early white telephone farce, but smartly dramatizes topics still worthy of exploration almost a full century later, when flame wars between Creationists and Bill Nyes still occupy much of the international conversation.
Colin Firth plays Stanley, a stage magician and professional skeptic who travels to the French Riviera on a mission to unmask a psychic named Sophie (Emma Stone), who appears to be bilking a hapless family out of their massive fortune by seducing their son (Hamish Linklater) and performing séances for their naïve matriarch (Jacki Weaver). Stanley has revealed countless charlatans in his day, but Sophie doesn’t use any of the familiar tricks, forcing Stanley to wonder if he’s losing his mind or if she’s the real deal.
Although Magic in the Moonlight boasts a superb supporting cast, it’s Colin Firth’s show and he stops it on more than one occasion through impeccable comic timing and, in particular, a climactic soliloquy that’s bound to go down as one of the best of the modern era, stripping Stanley’s soul bare and finding something wholly unexpected at the bottom. Allen’s film doesn’t rest on its laurels, but switches direction repeatedly, forcing an unlikely hero to reexamine everything about himself on multiple occasions. This unstoppable force repeatedly meets an immovable object, but is surrender his only option?
Allen’s subversion of Shaw’s original tale shmooshes Henry Higgins and Freddy Eynsford-Hill into the same entity; he’s an insufferable know-it-all who may also be a true-believing dupe. He’s a pronounced and distinctive character even when Magic in the Moonlight throws him into well-known situations, stranded on the side of the road with Sophie (Stone is radiant, incidentally) or sitting in an extremely familiar final position, which I mean quite literally. But although Magic in the Moonlight isn’t nearly as funny as either Shaw or Allen’s best – a few wonderful zingers aside – it does rank amongst the filmmaker’s more enjoyable delvings into the past. It’s a fully formed character piece that defies expectations and lingers in the memory. It may be familiar, but Magic in the Moonlight still dazzles. Somehow it’s just as clever as it thinks it is.