Woody Allen’s films, for many, are an acquired taste, imperfectly digested, especially for those not of a certain age. Some are crude, often base, and border on the ridiculous. Yet, the very best of the director’s films are not just funny, but profound, revealing a lifelong struggle with his perpetual predicament regarding life’s meaning, or, as Allen believes, meaninglessness.
Allen’s predicament is this: he simply cannot abide the consequences of his complete rejection of transcendent meaning in the universe. Whether he is fretting about the evil of an Adolf Hitler or lampooning the pompous and cruel, he is obviously using a kind of vaguely objective yardstick in making judgments. Yet, consistently, despite a valiant struggle to discern something like order amidst chaos, he falls back into existential despair mitigated by his sense of irony, humor and sex.
In his latest movie, Magic in the Moonlight, a luscious, delightful romantic comedy disguising a deep reflection on life’s purpose or lack thereof, he addresses the very same issues that arose, starkly, in his much darker 1989 masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors. In this latter film, I venture to say his best, a distinguished physician, Judah Rosenthal, an ophthalmologist, played by Martin Landau, fearing that his clingy mistress (Anjelica Huston) is about to reveal their affair to his wife (Claire Bloom) and family, thereby destroying his life and reputation irremediably, conspires with his shady brother to have his mistress murdered.
Landau offers a masterful performance of a man who has stared into the moral abyss and embraced it.
“And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt,” says Judah. “Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse — an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police.”
But Judah soon recovers: “And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person — a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scot-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.”
What the hell. This is chilling, and Woody Allen knows it but is incapable of offering anything by way of substantive philosophic rebuttal. Nothing.
Woody Allen does present, however, without irony, another character, completely moral and without guile, steeped in faith, as a contrast to the emerging monster, which is Judah Rosenthal. Ben, a blind rabbi, played by Sam Waterston, is Judah’s patient who even counsels Judah to tell his wife of his affair. He is a loving, accepting soul who is the polar opposite of the ophthalmologist. Allen appears to accept that Ben is to be preferred to Judah, but he cannot tell us why.
Given a lifetime of watching Allen’s films, I do believe he is intrigued with the possibility of something beyond this life, as many critics have noted, but his steadfast nihilism is as much a feature of his body of work as is his seemingly futile quest for transcendence and getting the leading lady into bed.
Coming full circle to his really fine production, Magic in the Moonlight, Allen’s main character is a “Chinese” illusionist played by Colin Firth who is also a committed skeptic and debunker of all hokum such as the occult or religion in general. He is brought into a wealthy family’s villa in the south of France, circa 1928, to observe a fortune teller or medium, played by the beautiful, spritely Emma Stone, with the aim of exposing her as a fraud. Despite a friend’s suggestion that she may be the “real thing,” Firth responds, “There is no real thing. It’s all phony, from the séance table to the Vatican and beyond. As depressing as the facts of the physical world are, they are the facts.”
Of course, this is a romantic comedy and, inevitably, the fortune teller’s charm, beauty, and love of life wins over the skeptic, romantically that is, despite being subjected to a bit of deconstruction herself. I dare not say more without giving away the plot. Watching Colin Firth ride a roller coaster of skepticism, faith, and then a return to disbelief in anything other than a gauzy sort of magic or love that one can find in the moonlight, we are compelled to recognize Woody Allen’s great talent for dialogue and humor. He really, truly puts Hollywood to shame with its endless stream of lame films driven by special computer effects, juvenile super heroes, and car crashes. There is really no one left in Tinsel Town who can speak to and for adults.
In his latest movie, Allen tries to overcome his perpetual predicament without faith, religion, or the categorical imperative. He seeks to overcome his horror of the Judah Rosenthals of this world by recourse to romantic love on a moonlit night. In this he does not, cannot succeed. But he offers us a wonderful film, one of his best, with ample food for thought and meditation.