What many don't acknowledge about Woody Allen is that he's just not stopping. Yes, his American funding has stopped, forcing him to head outside his beloved Manhattan to make his movies. And yes, his output is crazily uneven, from the Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris and surprisingly biting thriller Match Point to completely forgettable exercises like Scoop and Cassandra's Dream. But his take on other cities besides New York has been surprisingly vivid, and the unevenness of his output only speaks to its diversity. This has been a constant through his career - he could always deliver a stark drama inspired by Bergman one year then follow it up with wacky urbanity the next. The Allen movie is still a wild card, and cause for excitement.
Allen's latest, Magic in the Moonlight, is different to these eyes form his other movies, though no one else could have made it. The stage magic that has been a lifelong passion that Allen has alluded to in other movies, and it takes center stage here. Colin Firth (who is absolutely stellar at delivering Allen's most wicked insults) is stage magician Stanley, who sets aside his Orientalist schtick to visit France's Cote d'Azue, where a young clairvoyant named Sophie (Emma Stone) is impressing many with her gift (and turning quite a profit from it). Though initially skeptical, Stanley finds himself more and more convinced that Sophie's no fake, though he may be too blinded by his growing attraction to her to really see the truth.
It is a sunny period piece, to be sure, but everyone involved takes it seriously. The milieu of the stage magicians, from their onstage tricks to their offstage rivalries, is rendered convincingly, as is the world of 1920s seaside France. Allen staffs the movie with uniformly solid collaborators (and it's worth noting that no one in the principal cast has worked with Allen before), and even when Allen's grip on his material falters everyone involved works overtime to make the story work. Keep an eye on Stanley and Sophie - she's lit luminously throughout, while Stanley always seems to be partly in shadow while investigating her, his light and his costumes favoring lighter colors as love dawns on him. Darius Khondji, shooting his third movie for Allen, deserves an Oscar for his work on it - his lighting practically serves as a chorus throughout, commenting on the growing relationship and the imaginary (?) world of magic and spirit the characters all, to one degree or another, inhabit.
It sounds delightful, and it is, but Allen is unusually concerned with questions of illusion, reality, our capacity (and need) for belief in something intangible, what lies beyond our existence. One wonders if the sincerity of these questions hints that Allen is himself preoccupied with some great End ahead of him. But even at 78 he's challenging himself as an artist, and in the end Magic in the Moonlight considers mortality, but cheerfully abandons finality. Life continues beyond. So will Allen.