Anyone that knows the film lover side of me knows how much I absolutely adore Woody Allen. My first introduction to him was in a film class in my late teens when one of my teachers showed the class “Annie Hall” (1977). A film that struck such a chord with me and left such a mark that even 15 years later I still consider it to be one of my 5 favorite films of all time. In the several years following I’ve immersed myself in almost every Allen film. At one point a couple of years back, if my mind serves me correctly, I think I remember counting that I had seen 37 of his 44 films. His films have become something much deeper than just movies. In fact, they’ve gotten me through some really difficult times in my life. I almost use them as a therapeutic tool. They’re my version of what I consider to be “feel good movies”. Even though underlying them there’s a sense of cynicism and sadness about his views on life. In my eyes, I look at life very much through what I now consider to be almost an “Allen-like lens”. Given the fact that at this point I feel like I practically know the guy being well aware and knowing that I only know him as a writer, actor, director, comedian, and musician. The best thing for me is that I know each and every single year I will be given a new Woody Allen film. His creative output is only matched by the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, who used to release a film a year. And, who non coincidentally, also happens to the director who Allen cites as his biggest influence. Now I can’t really say I had the highest hopes going into his new film, as the trailer just screamed out “minor Allen”. But being in that he’s one of my top fave favorite film makers, I just knew that I had to see it.
The film starts off in Berlin circa 1928 where we first meet a seemingly famous magician named Stanley (played by the great British actor Colin Firth). Our initial impression of him is that he’s quite full of himself. He’s pompous, self absorbed, and a total narcissist. A longtime friend and admirer of his work employs him to travel to the southern coast of France to expose a clairvoyant named Sophie (played magnificently here by Emma Stone, in what might be her finest work to date), who specializes in being able to raise the dead through the ritual of seances. Since he himself is considered to be one of the finest magicians of his time, his employer hopes that he can debunk her and show that’s she’s really just a fake. Stanley arrives to France under the guise of a businessman, but after some time of him and Sophie getting to know one another, she recognizes who he really is and through intuition correctly guesses what his motivations are. But it also seems as if she is smitten by him and doesn’t really seem to care or not that he’s there to expose her. That, and he is fascinated by her too. So while they both know that he’s there for reasons to ruin her they grow a deep affinity and admiration for each other and one another’s work. As their relationship grows so do their affection for one another, but because of their age difference (Stanley’s much older) and the fact that both of them are already in committed relationships, it doesn’t seem like this is a possibility. Except by maybe an act of fate. At the core it may sound like a simple love story but in typical Allen fashion, there winds up being much more involved than what meets the eye.
This wound up being an enjoyable film that I had a fair amount of fun with. Even if it does fall into the more “lighter fare” category. But it is “late Woody Allen”. Who in much of his recent efforts, with the exception maybe last year’s splendid “Blue Jasmine”, more or less reflects the tone of a lot of his latest work. Emma Watson is enigmatic here and a true delight to watch. Colin Firth also seems fitting for the role, and while although I wouldn’t put it up there with his best work (see 2009’s “A Single Man”), he certainly does a decent enough job where I thought he was a good casting choice. The two lead actors obviously seem to have a lot of fun with another one of Allen’s consistently good scripts and provide some great on screen chemistry. Also, as is with a lot of Allen’s more recent work, which acts as an almost travelogue since he films all over the world, he shoots the coast of southern France beautifully with some absolutely gorgeous and stunning photography. The music is also a highlight, as is with most of Allen’s films, he has a great ear for old school big band jazz sounds of the early 1920’s and thirties. My only criticism of the film is that it almost felt a bit “too” light. Like it was trying to pander a bit to the audiences heartstrings. Which is not something I’m used to with Allen. If anything I’ve often felt like his work is the exact opposite in that it tries not to even remotely pander to what he thinks the audience might like. It’s also cute and charming but not very funny. Which I was fine with as I don’t think its intention really was to be funny. At least not laugh out loud funny. However, I look at both of these things as minor critiques and that for the most part, I was able to overlook because of the other elements that I liked. This is slightly above average “late Woody Allen” and is more aligned with his post-aught films like “Match Point” (2005) or “Midnight in Paris” (2011) than it is with his stronger films like “Vicky Christina Barcelona” (2008) and “Blue Jasmine” (2013). It’s a film that even an Allen admirer such as myself can certainly recommend to others who are just looking for an enjoyable evening out with a delightful and charming film which even despite it’s more lighter leanings, succeeds on a lot of levels.