If we judged every work of art by the moral status of its creator, our canon would be rather limited. In fact, depending on the standards of goodness we choose to enforce, I’m not sure we would have much left at all. That’s why I started writing this post with the intention of saying nothing about Woody Allen himself. And yet, it’s not that simple. On further reflection, I realized that what I enjoyed about this film has much to do with its Allen-ness.
Set in 1928, Magic in the Moonlight is about Stanley (Colin Firth), a Houdini-like magician who makes it his business to expose fraudulent spiritualists. When an old friend and fellow magician invites him to the south of France to unmask Sophie (Emma Stone), a young medium who appears to be preying on a rich family, he meets his match.
Stanley: There is of course no spirit world and even if there were, you can be sure that some little American gypsy would not be the one blessed to unlock its secrets. Only a low-grade halfwit would fall for any of this.
George: You’re not implying that her mother and brother are halfwits?
Stanley: I haven’t met them yet.
In the New York Times, A. O. Scott savaged the movie, noting Allen’s decision to have Stanley perform in a period-authentic disguise as “Wei Ling Soo,” which today would be considered tasteless, if not racist.
Scott also disparages the age difference between the characters. A number of critics, professional and otherwise, have sourly remarked that the age difference between Colin Firth and Emma Stone (as between their characters) is thirty years, something they find “disgusting” and all too reminiscent of Allen’s own relationship with his much-younger wife. In his films, Allen supposedly favors plots in which a cultured, intelligent older man tutors a dumb, naïve younger woman.
Yes, Woody Allen likes the Pygmalion story. It’s present in his masterpieces Annie Hall and Manhattan, as well as several other entries in his astonishing oeuvre of 47 films. Like every long-lived artist, he has his favorite themes and he re-uses them. It’s an integral element of his personal imaginary, just as his soundtracks, invariably composed of 20s and 30s jazz, are essential to his work. Since Pygmalion happens to be one of my favorite plays, I don’t object. But as a matter of fact, this film has very little to do with Pygmalion. True, Stanley is far more educated than Sophie. Obnoxiously, he makes much of the fact that she doesn’t know who Nietzsche is, and he sneers when she mistakes Shakespeare for Dickens. Yet the romance between them is not about Stanley shaping Sophie to suit his notion of a cultured woman. In fact, as the film makes clear, he’s the one who will be learning from her.
Aunt Vanessa (of Stanley and his fiancée): A very handsome couple indeed.
Stanley: Yes there’s no question, we are admirably suited.
Aunt Vanessa: A quite rational choice.
Stanley (bridling): It’s not entirely cerebral. I do love her. What are you suggesting? In the nuance of your tone?
Aunt Vanessa: Suggesting?
Stanley: Are you saying you think I’ve come to love Sophie Baker?
Aunt Vanessa: Me? I never mentioned Sophie.
Superficially, Stanley has Henry Higgins’ absurd ego and his nonchalant disregard for his own rudeness. But the most delicious joke in the film is that Firth gets to burlesque his best-known performance, as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Arrogant Stanley thinks far too much of himself, and he’s just begging for someone to burst his outrageously inflated bubble.
In Pygmalion, Higgins was never humbled. Magic in the Moonlight is all about the humbling of Stanley, the self-proclaimed theatrical genius, by a woman who is every bit his match in talent. Richard Brody made a very cogent observation in his New Yorker review: the contest between them is like that between a trained, seasoned, expert stage actor and a charismatic, natural-born film star.
The film presents Allen’s most detailed examination of the conflict between reason and faith in the supernatural. It reveals that Stanley is a misanthrope, armored against any danger of emotional intimacy by his contempt for lesser mortals. As Stanley comes to believe that Sophie has a true medium’s powers, he experiences a natural high, and what Paul Kurtz called the “transcendental temptation.” Ultimately he rejects the temptation, yet the joy he feels in being near Sophie does not depend, as he assumes at first, on the reality of her supposed supernatural gifts. Nor is it a simple case of love’s ability to soften and rejuvenate a cynic. In the end, what Sophie has to teach Stanley is that we can be well aware that something is an illusion, yet draw from it a profound sustenance. After all, that’s a fairly good description of art itself.