Magic in the Moonlight

Woody Allen seems obsessed with Europe, setting six out of his last seven movies there (I gave up counting after that).  Given that all six of these European films were mediocre at best, compared with the on-form Blue Jasmine, where Woody rediscovers his American roots and Jewish humour, I wonder what the attraction is.

So here we are again, in a luscious European setting – this time the Cote d’Azur – surrounded by an ensemble cast of British heavy–weights: Colin Firth, Eileen Atkins and Simon McBurney, supported by and handful of lesser known Americans; a chauvinistic view I know, but apart from Australian Jacki Weaver – utterly brilliant in Animal Kingdom – I had never knowingly seen the others. Firth is cast again in a role he knows best, Mr Grumpy, this time in the form of Edwardian supreme illusionist Stanley, aka Wei Ling Soo, who enraptures his audiences by making elephants disappear on stage and cutting ladies in half all, by his own admission, with sleight of hand.

He is spirited away by his fellow, but less successful, magician and childhood friend, Howard (Simon McBurney) to the south of France to unmask an spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), who has a rich American widow and her family, including besotted nerdy son, in thrall. Her unscrupulous mother is chasing a large endowment for a so-called spiritualist foundation and has her heart set not only on the widow’s funds but also on her son to cement the deal.  

Despite his arrogant conviction of Sophie’s grand fraud, Stanley is soon bowled over in a very British and superior sort of way, unwilling to admit that it is not just her professional brilliance that has captured his attention. No, its nothing to do with the fact that she has an innocent beauty with saucer-shaped blue eyes that gaze unflinchingly and adoringly into his…well this is a rom com, after all.

All this romantic stuff is nicely counterbalanced by a lovely performance from Atkins as Stanley’s beloved Aunt Vanessa – no-one does grandes dames quite like the Brits, do they? (I’m thinking Maggie Smith, Edith Evans, Judi Dench – oh the list is endless, although I suppose Lauren Bacall and Kathleen Hepburn get a look in). Anyway, no spoilers here, so no more talk of the ludicrous plot.

The real problem with the film is the lack of goody Woody dialogue. There is no quick, witty repartee; no anxious elderly Jewish character wringing his hands and getting into frightful scrapes, just the wry pomposity of Colin Firth being so very British and full of himself, even though he is still rather good to look at. In The Railway Man I complained that he was far too young for the part; here he seems rather too old, a sort of mutton-dressed-as-lamb in his lovely white linen suits, jackets and matching waistcoats – all he needed was a boater. It just doesn’t wash to try and make Colin Firth into a Woody substitute, I’m afraid.

The humour mostly comes from Atkins, who can deliver wry and witty, and Simon McBurney – but then I am biased as he is an old friend and his Theatre de Complicitéremains a tour de force of comedy.On the plus side, the movie cannot fail to be pleasing to the eye with its Provencal landscapes and fairly tale houses; the jazz soundtrack, as always with an Allen film, has your feet tapping. But cheesy is not a word I normally associate with Woody Allen, and this ladles it out like dollops of béchamel sauce on top of an overcooked cauliflower. Back to your roots, Mr Allen, please!

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