On a warm, overcast Saturday, writer-director Woody Allen quietly invites a visitor into his elegant but cozy Upper East Side brownstone, padding up a graceful staircase to a sitting room filled with plump cream and blush couches, tasteful Persian rugs and an assortment of American antiques. Once comfortably settled, he’s told that his new movie, a romantic comedy called “Magic in the Moonlight,” evokes at least two of life’s most rewarding subjects to contemplate: the South of France and God.
“Right,” Allen says contemplatively. “At least the South of France exists!”
The zinger is vintage Allen, from its steadfast, playfully expressed atheism to its flawless timing. But it also might come as a surprise to people who see something different at work in “Magic in the Moonlight,” which stars Emma Stone as a young psychic working on the French Riviera in 1928, and Colin Firth as the world-famous magician who’s been called upon to debunk her. “Magic in the Moonlight” revisits a plethora of Allen’s cardinal themes, subjects and settings, including but not limited to magic, fraud, self-deception, Twenties-era France and the perennial argument between empiricism and faith. But whereas so many of Allen’s past films have taken a chilly view of human morality within a godless universe, “Magic in the Moonlight” seems to make newfound space for, if not God, then at least illogical, instinctive, ultimately redemptive, love.
Has Woody Allen softened? Not one whit, he insists. For example, he still evinces zero respect for organized religion, which the last time he met this reporter he called “a mindless grasp of life.”
“I stand by that,” he says today. “The religions of the world have been pernicious. They’re economic and political movements — if God existed, they would have no particular special line to him. They’re just political and social corporations. And they’ve been responsible for so much misery and slaughter over the years, they have such an abysmal record. They run on defrauding the public. You see all these people in their fancy costumes laying down rules as to what you can do and what you can’t do, and telling you it’s come from God. It’s so silly, and people are so terrified of the situation they’re in that they buy into anything.”
The “situation” of which Allen speaks is, of course, the dark night of the soul — the grim certainty that ultimately life is meaningless and we’re all going to die and which we constantly try to apprehend or escape, whether by way of religious conviction or more secular pleasures. “The distractions take many forms,” Allen suggests. “In my life, I distract myself by turning on the baseball game or going to the movies and getting lost in the movies, or obsessing over the third act of my play — you know, a lot of stuff that’s annoying and puzzling and stimulating, but not terrifying.”
Let the record reflect that Allen is no miserablist. Sitting in his standard-issue uniform of crisp white cotton shirt tucked into khakis, his face adorned with an owlish pair of black-rimmed glasses, he looks fit at 78. Somewhere from the soft, well-appointed recesses of his home, the muffled sounds of family back-and-forths and feet padding up and down stairs can be heard. He’s surrounded by the fruits of a half-century of discipline, hard work and unexpected domesticity that arrived in the form of a late-in-life romance that began in scandal and resulted in a 17-year marriage and two children. (As for the controversy that erupted this year when his daughter Dylan Farrow revisited allegations that he sexually abused her as a child, Allen responded in a Feb. 7 New York Times op-ed, which has remained his last word on the matter.)
It’s tempting to interpret “Magic in the Moonlight” as something of an homage to Allen’s own happiness. In the film, Colin Firth plays an embittered, bitingly rationalistic man whose implacably cold world view (“common sense,” Allen offers) gradually succumbs to the charms and spiritual gifts of Stone’s much younger, more ethereal seer. Firth’s character is predictably skeptical of anything having to do with religion or mysticism; but Allen comes down equally hard on his alter ego’s bleak nihilism.
“It’s too easy,” Allen says of militant rationalism, adding: “You don’t want to just give up and sit there like a vegetable and wait to die.” In the case of “Magic in the Moonlight” — which is filmed with a gauzy, impressionistic palette and fairly bursts with lyricism and gentle, forgiving sentiment — “all I can say is, there are these little oases,” Allen says. “Emma Stone is a little oasis. . . . She’s charming and he’s in love with her. So they will have some moments of clinging together, of comforting each other, of maybe marrying, maybe having children, and [they’ll] get a little moment of pleasure, a little oasis of pleasure. But what’s going to happen to them is not good.”
Asked if he’s happy with “Magic in the Moonlight,” he shakes his head, “You know, I’m never happy,” he says. But he is willing to compare this effort with one of the few movies he’s been unconditionally pleased with: “Match Point,” the 2005 romantic thriller starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson. For those keeping score at home, “Match Point” offered a resoundingly pessimistic view of a world in which even the most murderously amoral behavior could win the day without consequence. Allen maintains that the same idea is expressed in “Magic in the Moonlight,” only by way of a “lighter, more romantic story. But the commercial message is the same in both movies.”
That message, in just about every Woody Allen movie a fan can name, is that morality is the most practical, rational way to get through a meaningless, ultimately fatally cruel, existence. “A moral life is a sensible life,” Allen insists. “It’s not just a good thing because of the Platonic beauty of morality. To be moral pays off.” Just as Allen doesn’t believe one should do the right thing in order to attain a nebulous idea of an afterlife, so does he approach his own work. In both arenas, he remains scrupulously detached from outcome.
He only learned that lesson after becoming a success, first as a writer, then as a stand-up comic and finally as a filmmaker. “In the early years, you start to achieve what it is you had dreamt of when you were younger, and then you see, God no, that doesn’t mean anything,” Allen recalls. “It doesn’t enrich my life in any way or mean anything to me. What was fun was making the movie. That was the fun part. When it opened, the fact that many people liked it, that’s a bonus and it’s nice. [Or] sometimes people don’t like it, and that’s a disappointment. But those are peripheral things. If you don’t have fun making it, then you’re lost.”
It’s safe to say that Woody Allen is still having fun. In an hour, he’s scheduled to catch a private plane to Chicago, where he’ll do more publicity for “Magic in the Moonlight,” then it’s back to Rhode Island, where he’s recently begun filming his 47th movie, co-starring Stone and Joaquin Phoenix. He’s not averse to pleasure, whether in the form of a Beethoven symphony, a Fred Astaire dance step, a soaring Sidney Bechet solo or a bag of chocolate chip cookies proffered for enjoyment on the plane trip to the Midwest.
But with Allen, it’s never wise to read too much into the joy he takes in simple things, or in the sweetness he himself often creates onscreen. Before graciously bringing the conversation to a close, he offers what might be the closest thing to the definition of his own vocation, spiritual or otherwise: “It’s the job of the artist, I think, to try and figure out how to get through life knowing that the worst is true.”
Opens in area theaters July 27. Rated PG 13. 97 minutes.