Magic In The Moonlight: it's Woody hell

Woody Allen

Is it really that time already? So soon?

It feels like it was only yesterday that I was kicking Blue Jasmine down the stairs like Tommy Udo in Kiss Of Death. And it wasn’t so long ago that I tied Midnight In Paris to a chair and went all Mr Blonde on it with my cutthroat razor. Good God, this job of begging Woody Allen to retire: will it never end?

Fresh from Blue Jasmine, his egregious transgression against the estate of Tennessee Williams, and the first movie he’d made in America since the lazy and undercooked Whatever Works, Allen has taken a step backwards to an earlier period in his career, and a particularly annoying strain of his storytelling. Sadly, it’s not the “earlier, funnier” part of his career, the one that ended with Stardust Memories. Instead, he has returned to what I think of as the “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Barcelona/London/Paris/Rome” period, where he tried to distract us, with dazzling tourist vistas and exotic European locales, from his wafer-thin plots and his late tendency to plunder his own back catalogue for inspiration that is no longer there to be had. To say nothing of what appears to be his tin ear for foreign countries and their cultures (the England of Scoop and Match Point is not a place I recognise at all).

With a plot based around fake (or real?) mystics, conjurors and clairvoyants, set in France and England during the late 1920s, Magic In The Moonlight harks back to the lamest titles in the Woody filmography. Midnight In Paris had both poorly explained time-travel plot-mechanisms (even lazier than those in Richard Curtis’s abominable About Time) and the same France (and Berlin) in the 20s setting. The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, set in 1940s New York, also pivoted creakily around a fake hypnotist, half-cousin to the fortune teller in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. If there’s a mystic, a European setting and an antique time-period, you should already know – if only from bitter experience of his recent oeuvre – that you’re in eighth-rate Allen territory.

Yet the top-rank acting talent keeps on showing up for him, the one saving grace of Allen’s movies in recent years. No matter how contrived the movie, or how clotted with unhelpful exposition their scripts may be, and no matter how little Allen does to deserve them, his actors always acquit themselves marvellously with whatever fragment of a story he gives them. They are the human equivalent of all those beautiful postcard settings, a means of distracting one from the threadbare stories they are forced to enact.

And, finally, as usual, there is almost a three-decade age-difference between his leads, Colin Firth and Emma Stone. Yet another thing we had no need to see in yet another half-cocked Allen trifle. Oh, he is tragic in his twilight.

Powered by article was written by John Patterson, for The Guardian on Monday 15th September 2014 06.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010