It seems I've become something of a Woody Allen apologist. The reviews here for his latest 44th (!) movie were so universally negative, that I nearly didn't go to see it on its release. The Times' critic described lead actor Colin Firth's performance as "soggy" -- whatever that means, and nearly all the detractors tend to compare each new Allen release with earlier Allen movies, rather than with the general dross available in cinemas today.
By that rather limited viewpoint, Woody's latest is not one of his greatest (and do bear in mind that I was not particularly taken with "Blue Jasmine"), but it is sunny and breezy, manages to bring smiles to one's face in addition to the occasional laugh-out-loud chuckle, and is much more than just a pleasant way to pass some 90 minutes. Always fascinated by magic and magicians, Allen casts Firth as heavily made-up, unrecognizable Chinese conjurer Wei Ling-Soo, a world-renowned performer in the late 20s when the film is set. He thrills audiences with his skill at making elephants disappear, sawing ladies in two, and evaporating and re-appearing himself. In his non-stage life as uptight, cold and caustic rationalist Stanley, he derives the utmost pleasure from de-bunking fake mediums. He has recently acquired a super-efficient and therefore highly suitable 'fiancee' in the form of Catherine McCormack and is supposedly happy with his rigid world view..
When an old childhood friend who has also become a professional magician albeit less successful (Simon McBurney with the most distracting comb-over ever) tells him about a sweet young thing (Emma Stone) busy plying her money-making seance act on a susceptible family on the Riviera, adding that he has been unable to discover her trickery, Stanley is tempted to go and expose the young hussy. Stone's Sophie has not only charmed rich dowager Jacki Weaver with her attempts to communicate with her late husband, but she has also enticed Weaver's ninny of a son (Hamish Linklater). He persists in serenading Sophie non-stop with his titchy little ukulele while he croons songs of the period slightly off-key; he and his Mum are preparing to fund a psychic research centre to Sophie's delight (and the greedy joy of her chaperone mother, Marcia Gay Harden in a nothing role), and he also hopes to make her his pampered wife.
Stanley is introduced into the household under a false identity by McBurney and Weaver's daughter and son-in-law who are fearful that Mum and Junior are being fleeced. From the moment he lays eyes on the wide-eyed Sophie, he attempts to pooh-pooh her supposed flashes of psychic inspiration, even when she seems remarkably prescient about his travels, love-life, and real identity. He remains unimpressed by her parlour tricks and is determined to show her up for the phony gold-digger that she is. However on a day trip with him to visit his beloved Aunt in Provence (a smashing performance from old-stager Eileen Atkins), Sophie manages to sense things about his Auntie's past relationships that she could never have known. Thus the consummate rationalist Firth must re-evaluate his long held prejudices and admit the possibilities of the soul, religious beliefs, and something inexplicable to his own hidebound views. He even calls a press conference to admit to the world that he just may have been wrong all these years. There is absolutely nothing "soggy" about his performance and the other main players are fine as well.
However when Atkins is injured in a road crash and Firth reluctantly attempts to offer up a little prayer to an unacknowledged God, he is reminded that even if his dear aunt should die, he can always communicate with her via Sophie. This knocks some sense back into his addled mind: only the skill of doctors can save his aunt and Sophie really must be some colossal fraud -- as a pedlar of illusion himself he is sure he can expose another, never dreaming initially that McBurney and Sophie might be in cahoots. Even when the truth is out and Sophie has accepted Linklater's proposal, Firth begins to understand that there is something about her which has touched him deeply and that even in the rational world there is something which can only be described as real magic. He offers his hand in marriage to save her from herself, but is rebuffed -- much to his amazement that a young lady from Kalamazoo should turn down the great full-of-himself celebrity. That's your final chance he yells after her...but we can guess the ending.
As always Allen's use of period music is brilliantly incorporated in the film and there is even a brief cameo from Ute Lemper as a café singer in Berlin (complete with grotesque Weimar figures in the foreground). The South of France photography is sumptuous as well. I feel that Woody keeps returning to his favourite period of the l920s if only to incorporate the spiffy shiny period roadsters which accompany nearly each scene; he may even have a fetish for them! As for the age difference between Firth and Stone, not that there is any mention of this in the storyline, I admit that there is something just a little bit creepy about this. However as Allen himself has admitted, he is now far too old himself to play against some of the exciting new actresses he finds, so substitute Woodys with all their inbuilt neuroses and jaded outlooks must fill in for him. Perhaps this recurrent theme is a sweet little love letter to his own much younger spouse in a marriage which has now lasted the best part of twenty years.
This is the sort of movie that one can just sit back and enjoy on its own terms, without pursuing any sort of intellectual exercise as to how it fits into the Allen canon. Bring them on Woody!