DESPITE AN ENDLESS AMOUNT of hand wringing, nobody's yet solved the whole "judging the art versus judging the artist" thing, which—as with Chinatown, as with Thriller—makes Magic in the Moonlight a tricky thing to write about. Or talk about. Or watch.
To be fair, Magic in the Moonlight has, in massive, euphoric doses, great heaps of the stuff that makes Woody Allen one of the world's best filmmakers: It's funny and sweet and graceful, almost overwhelmingly charming in its tale of a jaded magician, Stanley (Colin Firth), who's been tasked with using his expertise in sleight-of-hand tricks to learn how an earnest young medium, Sophie (Emma Stone), is conning her wealthy clients, effortlessly cutting through their defenses and finances with séances and visions. Stanley is, of course, British, and Sophie is, of course, American, but Magic in the Moonlight largely takes place on the sun-dappled French Riviera of the 1920s—unfolding as Stanley and Sophie drive in luxury convertibles along winding, spotless roads, or as people with too much free time lounge and reminisce in sprawling, spotless mansions. It's the kind of movie where people are always traveling, but never have to worry about their baggage, and Magic in the Moonlight's sense of escapism is so alluring that it's impossible not to get caught up in the crisp dialogue, magnetic characters, and postcard sights.
But also to be fair: As soon as dour Stanley starts to fall for bubbly Sophie, it also became—for me, at least—impossible to forget that Firth is 28 years older than Stone. Huh. That's kind of weird, I thought, after the third or fourth time the spell of Magic in the Moonlight broke. And then: Oh, right—Woody Allen.
Allen's last picture, Blue Jasmine, seemed to stand on its own, anchored more by Cate Blanchett's acid-tongued disintegration than any real-world analogues to Allen himself. But Stanley and Sophie's age discrepancy in Magic in the Moonlight stands out, threatening to pull any viewers who have even basic knowledge of Allen's personal life out of the film. In any other movie, it's hard to imagine Stanley and Sophie's ages wouldn't be mentioned, joked about, or examined. But not here; Allen takes for granted that his audience will buy into a romance that'd make Harold and Maude do a spit-take.
Ah, there's that hand-wringing! Sorry. Because maybe it doesn't matter—maybe we should be able to separate the art from the artist, and not, say, get a little weirded out when something like Magic in the Moonlight comes along. Judged on its own merits—or, more accurately, judged in a vacuum—the movie is delightful and sweet-hearted. Much as Stanley's skepticism isn't long for this world, whatever pessimism the film wields eventually shrivels in the sunlight of the French Riviera before being dealt a death blow by the smile of Emma Stone.
But none of us—not Allen the filmmaker, nor we the filmgoers—exist in a vacuum. Like all great directors, Allen can't help but seem as much a part of his films as any of their characters—even if he doesn't want to be, even if he doesn't appear in them. Watching all the excellent decisions Allen makes in Magic in the Moonlight, it seems obvious that he knows exactly how the audience will respond to each shot and every cut. Which makes it all the stranger that he seems to either not know or not care that Magic in the Moonlight's breezy May-December romance might come with some baggage.