The 90s were lean years for Woody Allen fans. It was as if he ruined himself after vigorously pumping out movies during the 80s on par with the works of cinema greats such as Bergman, Tarkovsky, and Kieslowski.
For example, the 80s gave us probing and hilariously posed questions about the problem of the good, plus a near conversion to Catholicism in Hannah and Her Sisters; the subtly nihilistic remake of Crime and Punishment, Crimes and Misdemeanors; and Zelig, a study of mimesis, pop culture, and a sendup of Freudian psychoanalysis. Those three are merely the tip of the iceberg for a director who was frequently making two films a year during the decade.
The 90s and the aughts brought mostly bombs. I won't even dignify them by naming them. Matchpoint was perhaps the highlight of these two decades, but it was clearly an inferior remake of Crimes and Misdemeanors. It was as if Allen ruined himself through film-making promiscuity, ran out of ideas, or both.
For fans like myself this period was an exercise in futility. I would religiously, as if out of some utopian hope, attend the next film upon release only to be sent home grumbling about never doing that again.
I reached a low-point with the Rome and Paris flicks, which were so lacking in challenging intellectual content, camera work, and humor that they made me totally give up the ghost.
Then Blue Jasmine rolled around. I resisted watching the film for nearly a year. The continuing stream of glowing reviews and the film industry awards finally chipped away at my resistance. And you know what? It is a brilliant film, on par, or even better than anything that Allen's done before.
The slow dissolution of a rich woman's life captured the post-2008 moment perfectly. If you want to see a film about the clueless 1 percent then this is it. But it does not let you gorge on ressentiment so easily. Cate Blanchett's character Jasmine is straight out of a Greek tragedy.
In the past, Jasmine got all the right breaks. You immediately hate her for how stupid and shallow they've made her. Yet, when she loses her fortune, Allen's presentation of her bumbling attempts at saving face, putting her life back together, chip away at your hate. You cannot bring yourself to cheer her descent into madness despite her willful blindness and deceit.
Blue Jasmine stands as a firm and hopeless warning with a twist. The fact is that any person with an ounce of humanity left in them—perhaps even Vladimir Putin—cannot help but feel pity for Jasmine. If the viewer is able to experience this cathartic insight, then he undergoes the conversion that the title character does not.
Allen's latest film Magic in the Moonlight has not received the credit it deserves. At first glance it is a starkly different film than Blue Jasmine. It seems this way because it channels some of the brainy levity of the films from the 80s, and even 70s classics like Love and Death or Annie Hall. Such a stereotyping of the earlier films ignores the existentially dead-serious serious thought-experiments and questions posed by those films through, not in spite of, their use of the comedy genre.
Furthermore, Magic in the Moonlight conducts a thought experiment about an aspect of human possibility that Blue Jasmine ex definitio could not. This human possibility is conversion; it starts off where the earlier film left off.
It does so through telling the story of Stanley (Colin Firth), a world-renowned magician, who is maneuvered into debunking a clairvoyant. He is the man for the job, because he knows all the best dirty tricks as a matter of profession. His drive toward disenchantment is reflected in his personality: He is the ultimate pessimist who peppers his speeches with sarcastic (but hilarious) variations on Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Darwin, and Hobbes. He is every bit as unlikable as Jasmine; however, the secret door of conversion stands slightly ajar for him. He inhabits an eucatastrophic universe, not a tragic one.
Stanley's encounters with the clairvoyant Sophie (Emma Stone) leave him stumped. He is unable to debunk her no matter how hard he tries. He ultimately, if briefly, leaps into a belief in God with a vaguely spiritual lining to the world. The twist that follows his conversion cannot be fully described without spoiling the film.
Suffice it to say, the film does an outstanding job of showing how a conversion ought to change one's world. It does so almost as well as Kevin Hart's title essay from the collection The Experience of God: A Postmodern Response (Hart's thought-experiment involves a remote control and a friendly stranger ...). Both Allen and Hart suggest that not much changes immediately in the objective world around the convert, yet our way of relating to the world gives us new eyes to notice phenomena that were there but we did not see or hear. This in turn has the potential to change the objective world as well—move mountains, if you will.
The conclusion of Allen's film subtly undercuts Stanley's conversion, but not in a straightforwardly devastating way. It leaves open the possibility that the faulty conversion is a happy fault (eucatastrophic).
Woody Allen's seriousness in entertaining the problem of conversion as a topic for a movie not only puts him high up in the living film director list, but also fairly high up on the list of atheist intellectuals who engage religion charitably. Or in his own words from Stardust Memories:
"To you, I'm an atheist. To God, I'm the loyal opposition."