For their latest films, quintessential New Yorker Woody Allen and French native Michel Gondry deliver fanciful love stories set in France and practically perfumed in jazz music. How each director approaches jazz standards mirrors their creative approach.
Allen begins Magic in the Moonlight by playing a vintage version of Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me" over his instantly familiar white-on-black opening credits. The lyrics, especially the line "Do do that voodoo that you do so well," speak to the plot's focus on love and magic, and the recording's slight hiss harks back to the jazz era, but it's also the same basic way Allen has started nearly every one of his films for more than four decades.
Meanwhile, Gondry sets his Mood Indigo in a phantasmagoric version of Paris, replete with crazy gizmos and cartoon logic. Early on, rich bachelor Colin (Romain Duris) shows off his new invention, a "pianocktail," which flavors cocktails according to the kind of music played upon it. Colin's friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) launches into the version of "Caravan" popularized by Duke Ellington, resulting in a highly peculiar beverage: "You get a nostalgic taste from the minor chords, and an optimistic one from the major chords."
Moonlight tastes of nostalgia gone flat, while Mood proves too inventive for its own good, with Gondry goosing a thin storyline by adding every visual idea that apparently came to him. Both filmmakers honestly try to engage their audience's hearts and minds, but have trouble getting out of their own way.
Moonlight stars Colin Firth as Stanley, a renowned Houdini-era illusionist who performs as Wei Ling Soo (inspired by a "real" fake magician, Chung Ling Soo). Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), an old friend, requests Stanley's help to debunk Sophie (Emma Stone), a supposed psychic who's been charming — and possibly fleecing — rich folk in the South of France. Skeptical of the supernatural, Stanley finds himself unable to discredit Sophie's powers, and becomes increasingly smitten by her.
Moonlight begins on the best possible foot, with Firth capturing Stanley's crabby rationalism and Stone being brightly vivacious, letting her huge eyes go glassy when she "communes with spirits." You hope you'll get a frothy version of The Prestige's rival magicians, but Allen instead focuses on the tension between naïve but happy faith versus smart but joyless skepticism. Allen may deserve credit as a filmmaker willing to build rom-coms out of competing philosophies, but he's addressed this particular dynamic much more deeply in earlier films.
And even if you can watch Moonlight without thinking of Allen's off-screen controversies, it's still problematic to see 53-year-old Firth and 25-year-old Stone as a romantic pair (especially when Stone was just graduating from high school in the new Spider-Man movies). And given that Stanley never seems to earn Sophie's love, Magic in the Moonlight feels like Allen's so busy contemplating deep thoughts, he neglects the basics of satisfying storytelling.
Whereas Moonlight definitely presents well-dressed actors sumptuously photographed in French chateaus and seasides, Mood Indigo finds Gondry crafting a crazily whimsical version of modern Paris, where doorbells scuttle along the walls on spidery legs and a friendly mouse (rendered by an actor in a mouse costume) lives in Colin's apartment. Colin's friends introduce him to Chloé (Audrey Tautou of Amélie), and their courtship involves kooky vignettes. Dancing at a party, their legs elongate like animated characters. Getting married, they race in go-cart rockets through the church to get to the altar.
Almost immediately after the honeymoon, the couple find themselves beset by health and then financial crises, a theme that proves quite timely for America's never-ending debate on affordable health care. For all of the weird doodles in the margins, the plot offers a fairly straightforward and melancholy love story, with sweet performances of thin characters. Gondry seems to romanticize the first bloom of love, then lament the harshness that accompanies domesticity.
Mood Indigo can be so twee, it makes the films of Wes Anderson look like Saving Private Ryan. Irritating though the film can be, it also rewards efforts to decode it, like a surprising jazz riff on a familiar melody. Magic in the Moonlight, after a lively start, simply plays the same old notes.