Why Woody Allen’s Lighthearted New Movie May Still Tie You In Knots
Magic in the Moonlight is a paper-thin trifle — but somehow is still hard to watch. BuzzFeed Film Critic Alison Willmore and Chief Los Angeles Correspondent Kate Aurthur discuss the film’s pitfalls.
Kate Aurthur: Alison, I don't even know where to start, so I'll just begin with this: Anyone getting excited that Woody Allen's new movie, Magic in the Moonlight, will offer a banquet of fictional opportunities to pore over Allen's real-life tribulations — his daughter Dylan Farrow's persistent rape accusations against him — is going to be disappointed. This film is one of his trifles. But there are things to discuss, of course. Like that the movie begins with Colin Firth's character performing onstage in 1928 Berlin — in yellowface. That got my attention! How about you?
Alison Willmore: It definitely made me wince, though white magicians who tried to create a sense of mystery with a Orientalist persona were a real, mostly period-appropriate thing. It plays into the story, in that Stanley (Firth) believes he'll remain unrecognized when he goes to debunk supposed psychic and spiritualist Sophie (Emma Stone), because people only know him as a performer as "Wei Ling Soo." It's also unnecessary and uncomfortable, especially right at the start of the film, a bit of old-fashioned racism tossed on screen for laughs. (And it's another problematic example of movies and TV acting like this treatment of Asians is somehow safe — hard to imagine a movie starting with a lighthearted scene in which its lead is in blackface.) But that willful obliviousness is something that I've come to associate with Allen, who often seems relevant only accidentally (as with Blue Jasmine), and this movie feels even more like it exists in a hermetic bubble given how little bearing it has to Allen's recent experiences. Kate, what did you think of the yellowface? And, more importantly, what did you think of the romance between Firth and Stone?
Kate: You're right, no movie would be so blithe about blackface. (Rightly.) Nor would Firth, I imagine. Also, the resulting jokes — "I dreamt I was being followed by a sinister Chinese!" is a line Stone has to deliver at one point — were not only racially tinged, but hacky. Like the film, frankly!
The romance between Firth (age 53) and Stone (age 25) existed on a few levels for me. It barely registered as a romance, in the same way this movie is so light it's almost nothing. As with most Allen couples, I didn't like the way Stanley thought of Sophie: She eats too much, and he calls her "an uneducated nobody." But it's not like he's hurling bile at her, the way Allen sometimes does at his female leads (Cate Blanchett's Jasmine in Blue Jasmine, or Anjelica Huston's Dolores in Crimes and Misdemeanors). Stanley is supposed to be a puffed-up jerk. I like both actors very much, but they had no chemistry — I just wanted it all to end.
On a symbolic level, though, I was interested that the screenplay, which was written and shot before Dylan Farrow told the world in February that her father's fame is a source of continuous pain for her, is basically about an older man trying to prove that a younger woman is a liar.
Alison: It also, like a lot of Allen's older man/younger woman pairings, falls somewhere between romantic and paternalistic, which has all sorts of unfortunate resonances with the Farrow case and Allen's current relationship. Stanley's more learned, more worldly, more aristocratic, and he shows Sophie around, talks down to her (he basically negs her into loving him), and eventually sets aside the fiancée he sees as his equal in order to deign to be in a relationship with her. Even Firth and Stone, who are very charming leads, can't make the love story any more lively, but, as you've said, that's kind of a relief — I was also happy it ended when it did.
I confess I've never been a great Allen devotee — I've liked some of his films and have been left cold by others, but I've never felt the depth of personal connection to his work that some of my friends and colleagues do. But watching this movie, for maybe the first time ever, I found that my awareness of everything Allen's been accused of actively overshadowed my ability to take in what was on screen on its own basis. Magic in the Moonlight is a weirdly innocuous and determinedly insubstantial thing to attach that kind of weight to…but that was part of the problem. I don't think it's a good movie, but I also just don't want to watch a bubbly, escapist period romp from someone who's just been involved in such an ugly, public battle over renewed claims he molested his 7-year-old daughter.
In a recent interview he did with the New York Times, Allen told reporter Dave Itzkoff that he didn't think the recent turmoil would have any affect on whether people would want to see Magic in the Moonlight, saying, "No thoughts like that occur to me. They only occur to you guys." I feel like that's an attitude as willingly turned away from reality as the film itself.
Kate: The other relevant things Allen says to Itzkoff are: "I don't think anyone has ever not come to a film of mine that they thought they would enjoy" and "Nothing keeps them away if they think they'll enjoy the film. And if they don't think they'll enjoy the film, nothing we can do ever brings them in."
Anecdotally, I don't think he's correct there, either. I have friends who are fans of Allen's who have told me they won't be seeing his movies anymore.
Allen's public stance on pretty much everything is mysterious to me, though, a feeling that reached an apex during the publication of his ham-handed, enraged, poorly written self-defense also in the New York Times the week after Farrow's piece ran. But the truth is, he doesn't have to do much defending, considering that most of the actors whom Farrow called out in her treatise seemed not to give what she wrote a second thought. Publicly, anyway. Even promoting this movie, Firth and Stone were on Good Morning America, and not only did George Stephanopoulos go out of his way not only not to mention the elephant in the room, but when Firth said about Allen, "He's not big on the preliminaries, the social graces," which could lead to an interesting conversation about something substantial, Stephanopoulos stepped in to say, "You just get to work," cutting off the conversation. Isn't GMA a news organization? This is all to say that yes, I agree: I won't ever be able to watch another Allen movie without thinking about what Farrow wrote, even when it's this dollop of foam. I had pretty much felt that way since the explosion of these accusations in 1992, but it's more salient now.
Yet somehow I can still appreciate, and often like, Roman Polanski's movies. Help me, Alison! How does the artist vs. their art debate this work within a person, and why isn't it consistent? (Confession: I am "the person" in question.)
Alison: I wish I had a good answer — it's something I slide around about a lot myself. I've generally tried to take the stance that how I feel about the art and how I feel about the artist are two separate things. Certainly, there've been plenty of terrible human beings who have made amazing books and films and television shows and music, and someone's being kind and generous is, sadly, no guarantee that he or she will create great work. But that approach is not always easy — good art makes you feel like you have a connection to the person who made it, and something that's become clear to me with Allen in particular is that many of his harshest supporters are really defending themselves and their affinity for his movies. I have a friend who admitted to having read nothing about Farrow's accusation, then proceeded to come up with excuses for what innocent behavior on Allen's part might have been misconstrued as abuse anyway. The sheer irrationality of it was the only thing that stopped us from getting into a huge blowup — he literally knew nothing about the topic, but was ready to wade in anyway, and it was because of how much he related to Allen's work.
I also have no problem watching and liking many of Polanski's films (which I was given a hard time about when writing this). He did something unquestionably criminal and awful, but his movies, ironically, feature some very well-written female characters and sharp explorations of gender dynamics. I can understand why some people might not want to watch his work given his sexual assault of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey in 1977, but I do feel like they're denying themselves some classics.
Where Allen's become a tougher case for me is how much of his work is a reminder of his confirmed and alleged personal life — the huge age gaps involved in some of the romances, the jokes about molestation and sleeping with 12-year-olds. There's also the way his movies normalize these things — like how everyone in Manhattan shrugs or laughs off the fact that 42-year-old Isaac Davis is dating a high schooler. Kate, do you think it's the overwhelming and unignorable Woody Allen-ness of Woody Allen's movies that's become the obstacle?
Kate: An obstacle to you and me — but not to your friend, I suppose. And I'm sure there are plenty of those die-hard fans out there, or moviegoers who simply don't care what a filmmaker does in his personal life, even when that erupts all over the media, raising provocative questions about consuming culture and personal responsibility. It's actually those people whose opinions of Magic in the Moonlight I'm interested in. Because they can't possibly like it, right? I didn't laugh once. And I wouldn't have stopped myself had something funny happened.
Alison: It did feel very flat to me, despite palpably struggling for an airy tone, and its debates about whether there's anything to life beyond what we can see came across as simplistic and awkwardly tied into the love story. But it does also seem like the kind of movie my parents would like a lot, and I don't mean that to sound dismissive — it's mild and it's nice, all sunny days in the south of France, pretty period costumes, and no serious stakes. Yellowface and age gap aside, it's mostly inoffensive, provided its creator's alleged offenses aren't a factor. The early reviews are evenly split, at least at the moment, suggesting Allen's always got an audience ready and waiting, even now. I don't fault them for it, I just can't join them.
Kate: Alison, I bet I could fault them if I got one or two drinks in me! But since we're forced to see his movies for work, let's just hope Allen will give us something substantial to grab onto next time. I've already forgotten about this one.