This week marks the release of Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight, the annual addition to his canon and the first of his films to come out after Dylan Farrow's renewed accusations of sexual assault. Magic in the Moonlight is, save for a couple of speeches on the nature of faith, lightweight fare, but certain Allen-isms can't help but recall his offscreen controversies. And it raises a not-unfamiliar question: how does one talk about a Woody Allen movie without talking about Woody Allen?
Magic in the Moonlight tells the Jazz Age story of Colin Firth's Stanley, an Orientalist magician, who sets out to prove that Sophie (Emma Stone), a young American medium bewitching a rich family on the Côte d'Azur, is a swindler. The two end up falling for one another. In frustratingly familiar Allen fashion, Firth is 28 years Stone's senior.
Certainly, some are wrestling with the question of whether you audiences can separate the artist from his work. At BuzzFeed, writers Kate Aurthur and Alison Willmore had a lengthy discussion about the film that veered into a discussion of how to view Allen's work in light of Farrow's essay published on Nicholas Kristof's New York Times blog. (Allen wrote his own rebuttal.) Though Aurthur, at the beginning of the piece, wrote that "anyone getting excited that Woody Allen’s new movie, Magic in the Moonlight, will offer a banquet of fictional opportunities to pore over Allen’s real-life tribulations — his daughter Dylan Farrow’s persistent rape accusations against him — is going to be disappointed," she later rightly states that "the screenplay, which was written and shot before Dylan Farrow told the world in February that her father’s fame is a source of continuous pain for her, is basically about an older man trying to prove that a younger woman is a liar." This is a point Nicolas Rapold hit upon in his review for Film Comment. Rapold explained: "I did not by any means enter this lighthearted romp looking for any such resonance, nor need it signify anything, but over the course of watching the story unfold, it did occur to me that the film’s suspense derives primarily from the spectacle of an older entertainer trying to prove that a young woman is lying."
Meanwhile, in Richard Lawson's review for Vanity Fair, he argued that the movie is on one hand a "reasonably charming minor work" and on the other "an unsettling look at a fussy older man who takes an unseemly interest in a daffy woman nearly 30 years his junior." In his conclusion, Lawson writes: "Obviously Allen has fans who will forgive the film for its proclivities, but given the swirl of news surrounding Allen in the past year, many more may share my distaste for the romance at the center of Magic in the Moonlight. "
Critics have been in this position before with Allen. Husbands and Wives practically begged comparison to Allen's off screen drama, given that it coincided with the heyday of the Allen-Farrow-Soon-Yi scandal in 1992, when the Dylan Farrow's allegations first emerged. To boot, the movie deals with the marital troubles couple, played by Allen and Mia Farrow. "The challenge for a film critic is to review this movie as a movie," Gene Siskel said on his and Roger Ebert's show at the time. In his Husbands & Wives review for Variety, Todd McCarthy wrote: "Many of these, of course, will come for the titillation of seeing Allen make out with a 21-year-old and go through a wrenching split from Farrow onscreen."
A year later, Manhattan Murder Mystery came out in the direct aftermath of Allen's loss to Farrow in the custody battle over their children. Like Magic in the Moonlight, Manhattan Murder Mystery was one of Allen's more purely comedic concoctions, and his real world troubles were brought up mostly in opposition to the movie's subject matter. "That Woody Allen found time to be remotely funny — in the midst of his highly publicized legal troubles— surely merits some kind of professional award," Desson Howe wrote in the Washington Post. Janet Maslin began her review in the New York Times, writing: "No one could cling to the notion that Woody Allen's art simply imitates his life after watching Manhattan Murder Mystery, the mild, middle-aged, atypically blithe comedy Mr. Allen was busy directing when his private difficulties became front-page news."
Magic in the Moonlight hasn't been as well-reviewed as Manhattan Murder Mystery, but there doesn't seem to be a resounding rejection of Allen either. In a piece for The Guardian, Edward Helmore argued that the fact that New York celebrities like Vogue editor Anna Wintour and former police commissioner Ray Kelly turned out for the screening "seemed to settle the debate over whether support for him would be withheld after allegations of child molestation were renewed in the New York Times this year." Though a couple of interviewers asked Allen to comment on the allegations or their fallout—Allen told Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times that the possibility of the audience rejecting Magic didn't occur to him—at Flavorwire Jason Bailey illustrated how the audience at a junket press conference was mostly respectful of the moderator's wish to stay on the subject of the movie. "So, what’s more ridiculous: that such a condition for participation was issued, or that it was heeded?" Bailey asked in the piece.
Ultimately, there's not much to read into Magic in the Moonlight; the movie won't make much of a mark on Allen's oeuvre, either. Still, the queasiness associated with the central romance that Lawson, Willmore and Aurthur describe is impossible to ignore if you're an audience member deeply unsettled by what Dylan Farrow recently brought to light again.