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WOODY ALLEN’S LATEST IS MORE OF A TRICK THAN A SPELLBINDING TREAT

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Rating: PG-13, Grade: C+

In the poem “Marmion,” Sir Walter Scott opined, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” The line, often assumed to have come from Shakespeare, has been appropriated to countless situations, tales of epic woe and classically comedic misdirection, and I will drag it out, once again, smoothing its wrinkled edges in this critical take on “Magic in the Moonlight,” the latest release from Woody Allen. 

“Magic” is all about deception. From the top, we have Stanley (Colin Firth), an Englishman posing, during a live stage presentation in Berlin, Germany (1928), as Wei Ling Soo, an Asian practitioner of the mystic arts, performing elaborate tricks and feats to amaze audiences who have paid top dollar for such diversions. On stage, he is a silent assassin, knifing his way through defenseless and utterly susceptible crowds, but as he steamrolls his way to the sanctuary of his private dressing room, we see a bullying blowhard of a diva – demanding, snobbish and casually cruel to anyone in his way. 

But once the show is over, the second “act” begins, because Stanley is also a world-renown debunker of psychic fraud, any and all who would use sleight of hand and tricks of the trade to swindle, con and deceive for cheap gain. Approached by Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), a colleague, and quite possibly his only friend, and enticed to expose a new psychic medium on her way to bilking a naïve young heir (Hamish Linklater) and his mother (Jacki Weaver) of their fortune, Stanley “becomes” the eternal skeptic, a non-believer in either science or faith, until Sophie (Emma Stone) “proves” herself to be more than he bargained for.

It is quite plain to see what Allen is up to here. Only trust what you can see, he seems to be saying, while distracting us with the lavish charms of the privileged settings, the dazzlingly urbane zingers in his dialogue delivered by a cast featuring the little used Catherine McCormack, Marcia Gay Harden and a droll Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa and grand romantic gestures. Too bad he doesn’t believe or place any trust in any of it.

Allen stacks the deck even further. There is bit of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in “Blue Jasmine,” rather, a heaping helping of Blanche du Bois in Cate Blanchett’s emotionally unstable Jasmine, and so it is not exactly surprising to detect a touch of “The Great Gatsby” here (Gatsby and Daisy both appear in Stone’s psychic impressionist who also reaches across the great beyond to commune with the dead, while receiving payment from her wealthy patrons). She is an All-American huckster, a dreamer and potential schemer (at least to Firth) taking this secluded and exclusive world by storm – “a visionary and a vision” is one description of her. The problem with Stone is she lacks the obsessive grit of Gatsby, as well as the otherworldly ethereal grace of Daisy, which renders Sophie little more than a girl playacting among grown-ups with no real hope of holding her own. Scratch the magic, folks.

The film is a step down from the last few releases, the highlights being the aforementioned “Blue Jasmine,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” “Magic” certainly aims high, in terms of the theme and the seeming literary allusions, but it debunks itself along the way. All the talk of magic as a hoax, the magic of romance as a hoax is what its truly going after, and it is the talk, the incessant blathering on, especially from Stanley (who knew Firth could play such a fastidious and pompous jerk?) that lifts the curtain and exposes the decided lack of any kind or degree of spell casting or hint of the supernatural attraction or what Luther Vandross deemed “The Power of Love.” Don’t be deceived.