Woody Allen alienated fans of his early comedy with serious themes and films.
He might alienate fans of his later work with “Magic in the Moonlight.”
That he has “later” work is a tribute to a stubborn iconoclast whose films were like an itch he scratched because their topics interested him, while defying studio demands and audience expectations.
Gems like “Blue Jasmine,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Match Point,” however, make other such recent films as “To Rome With Love” and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” look like half-baked exercises in genre by comparison. “Magic in the Moonlight” is similarly trivial.
There are many kinds of magic. This is none of them. The film resembles his unfortunate lighter, later work “Scoop,” in which Allen played a magician solving a crime.
In “Moonlight,” Colin Firth plays a 1920s stage illusionist who also is a debunker of mystics and mediums. One such con artist is played by Emma Stone, with whom he, of course, falls in love, despite the huge difference in their ages.
But not before various archetypal zigs and zags occur, in huge and ornate rooms overlooking the Mediterranean and the sweeping Cote d’Azur countryside.
The locations add a “Masterpiece Theatre” verisimilitude. And the stock characters — Marcia Gay Harden as Stone’s plotting mother, Hamish Linklater as the clueless millionaire in love with Stone, and Eileen Atkins as Firth’s aunt — and comic architecture have their roots in stylized commedia dell’arte.
The result is a detached study in form rather than engaging or original content.
Audiences have traveled in the jet stream of Allen’s neuroses for nearly 50 years. He is one of the few American directors given carte blanche to craft a career in their own image. Another is Clint Eastwood, each of whose later films feels like a career statement.
“Magic in the Moonlight,” however, feels like a diversion, and serves as a reminder of all that we are missing.
Allen’s appearance was the best thing in John Turturro’s “Fading Gigolo,” and stirred hope we haven’t seen the last of him in his own work. What would really be welcome — and perhaps what his faithful audiences are due — is a candid self reassessment of his obsessions, an epic finale, a la Philip Roth or John Updike, of all that has haunted him.