“Lucy”/”Magic in the Moonlight” – Two(!) Reviews

28 Jul

Lucy

Magic in the Moonlight

So, can you do that with your hands?

 

Intelligence, rationality, and mild misanthropy are on the docket with these two mid-summer entries. Both Luc Besson’s Lucy and Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight are nothing more than moderately enjoyable trifles, though this estimation still makes them better than most warm weather fare.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a stupid American tourist dabbling in post-college fun in Taiwan, becomes an unwilling drug mule for a bunch of Korean gangsters. The bag of drugs soon breaks, flooding Lucy’s system and beginning a process wherein she starts to unlock her untapped cerebral potential. Violence-filled hijinks ensue.

Lucy the movie gets stupider as Lucy the character gets smarter. It’s stupidity, however, is it’s saving grace, as the film seems to get off on the pure inanity of the situation. The opening ten minutes – in which Lucy is captured by a bunch of gangsters – is notable for intercutting between the primary scene and one with a lion stalking and killing its pray. “Humans are merely animals,” Besson is shoving in our faces. This heavy-handed allegorical bullshit thankfully does not carry into the rest of the movie. Instead, what we get for the next hour or so is an extended action scene, with brief respites to hear Morgan Freeman pontificate about the limitless capabilities of the human brain.  

The title character’s powers become more superhuman (and absurd) as she unlocks more of her as-yet untapped cerebrum. She learns Chinese in about five minutes; can remember memories of her infancy; is somehow able to read a man’s mind just by placing her hands on his head; intercepts cell phone calls out of thin air; controls electronic devices; telekinesis. She can even control the cells of her own body, thereby changing her appearance, though thankfully she is almost always Scarlett Johansson. By the time she’s up to 80% brain power, shit starts getting weird fast.

Can the brain do all these things if we were using more of its power? I don’t know. The film doesn’t either, and it doesn’t seem to care that much. Instead, director Luc Besson has created a swift (just under an hour and a half) romp through the streets of Taipei and Paris. Action scenes never overstay their welcome, and the sheer loopy lunacy of the premise is taken to its completely illogical – yet perfectly satisfying – conclusion.

Lucy is the second film this year in which Johansson has played an otherworldly character in a movie that has drawn heavily from Stanley Kubrick. In the other, the much ballyhooed Under the Skin, she played an alien who seduces and kills men. Here, it is not her sexuality, but her brains which are the main attraction. In the past I’ve dismissed Johansson’s acting abilities as less than exemplary.  Even in films I’ve enjoyed – and enjoyed her in – like Lost in Translation and Match Point, I’ve found her performances lacking in nuance. Of late, however, she’s come into her own as an actress. Here, she gets to play both a ditz and a genius, and does the best within the limitations set forth in the script.

It’s the genius part of her character where the movie could have veered off in a different direction. One question that Besson toys with is: what makes a person a human being? As Lucy becomes smarter, we see her humanity slowly peeling away (sometimes literally). She becomes more analytical and ruthless, less compassionate and caring. She understands this is happening, and part of her wants to hold on to what makes her a human being and not a supercomputer in a woman’s body.

It’s a theme that is hinted at but never really developed. For the movie Besson made, this is probably for the best. When it works, Lucy has the irreverent energy of a Hong Kong action film, both fun and stupid in a good way; when it tries for anything too deep (like its references to 2001), the film becomes obvious, graceless, and stupid in the worst of all possible ways.  

***

There are three types of Woody Allen audience members. There are those who generally enjoy his films, especially the great ones, but are also critical of much of his later/lesser works. There are those who love Woody Allen films, even the later/lesser works, simply because they are by Woody. And there are those who hate Woody Allen movies, with the possible exception of September for some strange reason.

I’ve always found myself squarely in the second category. For me there are three distinct Allen films: the great ones (Annie Hall, Manhattan), the few truly awful ones (Celebrity, Hollywood Ending), and a large spectrum that runs from the Meh… to the Yeah!

Allen’s new film, Magic in the Moonlight, is much closer to the Meh… than the Yeah! Set primarily in the south of France during the mid-1920s, Colin Firth plays Stanley a stage magician and debunker of mystical frauds, who is asked to determine the genuineness (or lack thereof) of Sophie (Emma Stone) who has enthralled a wealthy American family with her precognitive gifts. Though whether enthralled means “correctly predicted the future” or bamboozled them out of a bunch of money is Stanley’s job to figure out.

Stanley is a true believer in Science with a capital-S. He doesn’t believe in god, magic, fate, or any of that other mystical humbug. He believes in what he can see and touch. The more he follows Sophie around, however, the more he begins to suspect that she’s the real deal. And the more he thinks her to be genuine, the happier he gets at the prospect that the world is more mysterious than he once believed.

This has been a running theme in Allen’s films: if life is meaningless, how can we be happy? If life on earth is it, with nothing afterwards, what do we have to look forward to? The answer Allen has served up on countless occasions is that we have to find what makes us happy here and now and run with it. That may be a Marx Brothers movie (in Hannah and Her Sisters) or a “we need the eggs” romance (Annie Hall).

Here it’s Sophie’s pretty eyes and smile that Firth falls for. Unfortunately, the romance in Magic in the Moonlight doesn’t quite add up. Both Firth and Stone are solid in the film, and as adversaries there is a definite chemistry between the two. But the “Is She a Real Psychic?” storyline is far more enjoyable than the “Will They/Won’t They?” one. While Emma Stone portrays Sophie as smart and sophisticated, Allen’s script rarely delves deeper into her character than her eyes, smile, and possible psychic abilities. Firth’s Stanley has plenty of charm (he is British, after all), but he is also a stubborn curmudgeon who wears his cynicism and misanthropy on (or is it up?) his sleeve. What the optimistic, bright-eyed Sophie sees in him is anybody’s guess. Furthermore, it is always a bit disconcerting when a fifty-three year old man romances a twenty-five year old woman, more so in a Woody Allen film.

While Magic in the Moonlight can get bogged down in Writer Allen’s existential philosophical discussions, Director Allen is the one who mostly redeems the film. Over the years Allen has been thought of as one of the best screenwriters around, but his directing chops are as good as anyone out there. Both his staging and his direction of actors remain top notch. As he’s done for much of his career, Allen utilizes long takes to present a scene as a whole as opposed to one cut up into various characters. The cinematography (by Darius Khondji) and costumes (Sonia Grande) make this a light, breezy period piece, a  Downton Abbey on the Riviera, if that show were actually any good.

Magic in the Moonlight is a slight film about sleight of hand.  It’s not necessarily good, but is far from bad. But like many of Woody Allen’s lesser films, it is a capable distraction from the real world (oy, the real world!). It’s charms are thin but not nonexistent. Similarly, Lucy is a film that could have tried to be about something bigger, but opts instead for what Luc Besson excels at – action scene shoot-outs. Neither film is a failure by any means, but each seems to be using only part of its brain, with untapped potential never quite realized.

Final Grades

Lucy: B-

Magic in the Moonlight: C+

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