By Eleanor Ringel Caterca
If you happen to know — or happier still — happen to love Woody Allen’s moon-drenched “A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy,” it’s all but impossible to look at his newest, “Magic in the Moonlight” without regarding it as a kind of autobiographical bookend to the earlier film.
Think back to the Woody Allen Saga, circa 1982.
He is newly in love — besotted with his cultural opposite, flirtatious flower child Mia Farrow, the waif-like ‘60s siren who, at 21, snared Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. It’s worth noting that he, at 50, was at his most irrelevant. In 1966, nobody gave a flying flip about Ring-a-ding-ding. Well, nobody under 30, that is.
Still, the unlikely match gave them both brief gossip-column traction. Ava Gardner, Frank’s longtime on-again, off-again love cracked, apropos of Farrow’s twiggy figure and close-cropped hair, “I always knew Frank would end up with a boy.”
Farrow and Allen, who met in 1979, were another Very Odd Couple. The Neurotic and the Nature Child. He’s anxious. She’s ashram. You get the idea.
She became Allen’s muse, starring in 13 of his films. “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” which came along in 1982, is one of his most delicious and least appreciated. Set in a Chekovian summerhouse circa 1900, the movie is a loose adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night.” (The best-known riff on “Smiles” is Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”)
“Midsummer” ends with Allen’s unabashed admonition that there is magic in the moonlight. Spirits and sprites circle like fireflies and the just-departed Jose Ferrer, — a stuffy academic and non-believer while alive — exhorts Allen to let logic be and embrace the enchantment of possibility.
The new film comes to the opposite conclusion: so what if there is no magic? Moonlight on its own can be just fine and even a fake spiritualist can cast a perfectly acceptable spell.
It is a movie about mortality and, as such, offers a certain duality: resignation, on the one hand, and acceptance on the other.
We are in the south of France during the Jazz Age. Stanley Crawford (a hilariously imperious Colin Firth) is a world-famous stage magician, as celebrated for his illusions as he is for his single-minded determination to expose fakes (Harry Houdini played this role in real life).
A wealthy American widow (Jacki Weaver) and her family (led by Hamish Linklater) have fallen under the spell of an is-she-or-isn’t-she psychic who claims to be in touch with their recently deceased patriarch. Stanley has come to burst her magic crystal.
Or could she be the real thing? Sophie (Emma Stone) is dazzling in the moonlight, the sunlight, everywhere. Stanley feels his cynicism slipping away….
There’s more than a fair amount of Farrow in some of Stone’s line readings. Yet she has a captivating manner that’s all her own, and she’s adorable in her succession of flapper-style frocks. Looking especially handsome in his period tux, Firth reminds us no one can make repression as sexy as he can. The rest (including Eileen Atkins and Marcia Gay Harden) don’t have much to do.