(page 3 of 3)
In “Magic in the Moonlight” the historical setting makes it worse. When Stanley gives a press conference about Sophie’s séance table success, he speaks for her. Sophie’s main consideration is marriage and, as if taking her cue from some 19th-century novel, snagging the best husband she can entice. She may have her wiles, but it’s the men who are in charge.
Granted, that’s how things were back then. And I’m not asking Allen, or anyone else, to tailor his films to fit contemporary mores. It’s perfectly fair — indeed necessary — to depict situations that are unjust. But “Magic in the Moonlight” is not the unmasking of injustice; it’s a fantasy of a time when it was acceptable.
This goes not just for gender issues, but also for racial and economic ones. There is the uncritical orientalism of Stanley’s stage persona and, despite a comment from Sophie about being from the working class, the conspicuous absence of working people. Even novelists like Henry James and Edith Wharton, whose upper-crust settings are evoked by Allen’s movie, also depicted servants.
Yet all is supposed to be well because the characters fall in love. And this, perhaps, is the movie’s greatest flaw. It’s a fictional enactment of Allen’s notorious line when he married Soon-Yi Previn, “The heart wants what it wants.” With all due respect to Emily Dickinson, from whom Allen cribbed that phrase, “The heart wants what it wants” is neither a recipe for moral behavior nor a good premise for a movie. Having love triumph completely against obstacles that were never formidable is boring. It’s when the heart wants but the heart doesn’t get — or at least, shouldn’t get — that compelling situations result.
These were once the movies that Allen made, even when it came to comedies. At the end of “Annie Hall” (1977), Woody Allen as Alvy Singer doesn’t get the girl. In “Manhattan” (1979) Woody Allen as Isaac Davis loses both the girl he had and the woman he wants. Even a movie like “Love and Death” (1975), a philosophical farce whose existential concerns prefigure the ones in “Magic in the Moonlight,” ends with an execution.
None of this, of course, is going to alter Allen’s reputation. He’s made enough great films at this point that he doesn’t have to worry about his legacy, at least from an artistic standpoint. Like countless other Woody Allen flicks from the past few decades, “Magic in the Moonlight” will be forgotten soon enough. Fortunately for everyone, not even a séance will revive it.